China has reacted angrily after Congress pushed ahead with new legislation to back democratic freedoms in the restive region of Hong Kong, vowing to hit back at any actions perceived to threaten Beijing’s interests.
On Wednesday, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 moved through the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The legislation will likely be voted on by both chambers in the coming weeks. If passed, it will allow the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials who undermine the autonomy of Hong Kong. The bill will also require the president to review Hong Kong special economic status each year and ensure its freedoms are not being eroded.
U.S. lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are keen to show their support for the anti-government movement that has gripped Hong Kong since June. The action was sparked by a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong to extradite fugitives to China to face trial, but has since grown into a far wider pro-democracy, anti-Beijing cause.
China has repeatedly warned foreign nations not to interfere in the ongoing protests, which it has characterized as a purely domestic issue. On Thursday, a foreign ministry spokesperson decried Congress’ action and warned it could have negative consequences for the U.S.
Geng Shuang suggested that the legislation represented an effort to “wantonly interfere in China’s domestic affairs” and demonstrated the “malicious intention of some in the U.S. Congress to contain China’s development,” The South China Morning Post reported.
“Passing the bill will only encourage the radical and violent forces in Hong Kong and send Hong Kong further into chaos,” Geng added. “It will harm not only China’s interests, but also the U.S.’ interests. China will hit back forcefully at any US action that aims to hurt China’s interests.”
Geng also demanded that Congress shelve the legislation to avoid “further strain on Sino-U.S. relations.”
While China was fuming, Hong Kong pro-democracy groups were celebrating the progress of the bill. In a statement sent to Newsweek, the U.S.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council said Congress’ actions represented the “first significant steps” towards the legislation’s success.
Samuel Chu, the managing director of HKDC, said, “The speed with which the bills have worked their way through committee shows the commitment of congressional leaders to Hong Kong and the increasing support from members of Congress in both parties.”
“We are hopeful that House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader McConnell will keep the pressure on the Chinese and Hong Kong governments by quickly scheduling and taking up the votes for the act when Congress returns from recess,” Chu added.
Chu noted that while Congress was giving positive signals, “it is equally important that we encourage the White House and administration to take this mandate from Congress seriously and to make full use of the tools this act will provide to protect Hong Kong.”
“China is sensitive”
Chu later told Newsweek that the angry Chinese response “shows that China is sensitive and susceptible to international pressure.” He also paid tribute to the protesters whose tenacity has kept the movement so present, noting they have “put their lives on the line to keep this issue front and center on the global stage.”
Despite constant Chinese claims to the contrary, Chu argued that Hong Kong is inherently an international issue, given that China agreed the 1984 Joint Declaration with the U.K.
“Chinese officials should remember that it was Deng Xiaoping who in the mid-1980s lobbied western capitals and invited them to grant Hong Kong its special status on the basis of the promised high degree of autonomy,” he explained.
Though there is still some way to go, the bill’s chances look good. “We are hopeful that the bills are moving rapidly and that the final passage could come before the end of the year—which would make it a relatively quick turnaround,” Chu explained.
Chu also lauded the support of prominent lawmakers, suggesting their involvement has been “key” and “will be the reason why the bill will pass.”
This article has been updated to include additional comments from Samuel Chu.