Protesters have called on the US to support their movement during mass protests that began in June. [Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters]
Published in AlJazeera on Nov 28th, 2019,
Trump says he signed bills out of ‘respect’ for China, but country reacts with fury and warns of ‘firm countermeasures’.
The legislation, approved unanimously by the Senate – the United States‘s upper house – and by all but one member of the House of Representatives – the lower house – last week, requires Hong Kong’s special trade status with the US to be reviewed annually by the State Department, and also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.
Congress passed a second bill, which Trump also signed, banning the export to the Hong Kong police of crowd-control munitions, such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber-coated bullets and stun guns.
“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”
China’s condemnation was swift.
A foreign ministry statement issued on Thursday, shortly after the US announcement repeated heated condemnations of the law and promised “firm countermeasures”. Hong Kong’s government, which received a drubbing in district elections on Sunday, expressed “extreme regret”.
Protesters have been on the streets of the territory since June, angered first by a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to China for trial. That bill has now been dropped, but the protests have evolved into wider calls for China to stand by commitments made to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” when it regained sovereignty over the city in 1997.
That pledge, known as “one country, two systems”, was meant to last 50 years and is the basis of the self-governing Chinese territory’s special status under US law. Protesters say freedoms have been steadily eroded.
After Congress passed the bill, Trump’s aides debated whether the president’s endorsement could undermine efforts to reach an interim deal, and most of them ultimately recommended the signing to show support for the protesters, a person familiar with the matter told Reuters.
The decision was also influenced by the overwhelming majorities in the Senate and House in favour of the legislation, which was widely seen as making the bills veto-proof, as well as the landslide victory in Hong Kong on Sunday of the pro-democracy camp, the person said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
If Trump had opted to use his veto, it could have been overridden by two-thirds votes in the Senate and the House. The legislation would have automatically become law on December 3 if Trump had opted to do nothing.
“He had no choice,” said Al Jazeera’s Patty Culhane, reporting from Washington DC. “Congress forced his hand.”
Culhane added that Trump’s statement suggested the president was reluctant to invoke the legislation that China had denounced as a gross interference in its affairs and a violation of international law.
After pushing back against the legislation for days, the foreign ministry on Thursday issued a strongly-worded statement accusing the US of acting arbitrarily and interfering in its internal matters.
“This is not just about Hong Kong,” Al Jazeera’s Andrew Thomas said from Hong Kong. “This is about the US meddling in China’s internal affairs. They are absolutely furious about it.”
In its statement, the Hong Kong government said the two acts “clearly” intervened in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. “They are unnecessary and unwarranted,” it said, adding the measures would send “an erroneous signal to protesters, which is not conducive to alleviating the situation in Hong Kong.”
In Washington, members of Congress applauded Trump’s decision to sign the bill.
“The US now has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement.
Many see the US legislation as symbolic, but the bills’ provisions have the potential, if implemented, to completely change relations between the US and Hong Kong and leave the territory treated in the same as any other Chinese city.
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 😷 (@joshuawongcf) November 28, 2019
Analysts say any move to end Hong Kong’s special treatment could prove self-defeating to the US, which has benefitted from the business-friendly conditions in the territory. If Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese port, companies that rely on the territory’s role as a middleman or for trans-shipping could take their business elsewhere.
That said, the bills contain strong waivers that would allow the president to block their provisions on grounds of national security or national interest.
According to the State Department, 85,000 US citizens were living in Hong Kong in 2018 and more than 1,300 US companies were operating there, including nearly every major US financial firm.
The territory is a major destination for US legal and accounting services. In 2018, the largest US bilateral trade-in-goods surplus was with Hong Kong at $31.1bn.
Trade between Hong Kong and the US was estimated to be worth $67.3 bn in 2018, with the US running a $33.8 bn surplus – its biggest with any country or territory, according to the Office of the US Trade Representative.
SOURCE: AL JAZEERA AND NEWS AGENCIES