Sep 23, 2019 - Politics & Policy

Senate's Hong Kong human rights bill edges closer to passage

Hong Kong protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport during a demonstration

Protesters occupy the arrival hall of the Hong Kong International Airport. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee will debate and vote on a bipartisan bill on Wednesday aimed at supporting human rights in Hong Kong, with measures that include giving the U.S. more authority to defend the region's autonomy and sanction individuals who attempt to undermine it.

Why it matters: The bill has emerged as the leading mechanism proposed by Congress for the U.S. to deter Beijing from escalating its aggression in Hong Kong.

Details: The measure gives the Trump administration and future governments new tools to crack down on China's efforts to undermine Hong Kong's autonomy.

  • The bill requires the president to identify individuals responsible for human rights abuses, freeze their U.S.-based assets and deny them entry to the U.S.
  • It also mandates that the State Department issue an annual assessment on whether Hong Kong remains autonomous from Beijing in an effort to pressure China into maintaining the territory's special economic status.

Worth noting: If the State Department were to determine that Hong Kong lost its autonomy as a result of Beijing's aggression, it could lead the U.S. government to downgrade its special status and treat it the same way it treats mainland China.

  • "Everything we do with Hong Kong is based off the fact that they are autonomous," Sen. Marco Rubio, who is a lead sponsor of the bill, told Axios. "What would be the rationale for treating the products, commerce, etc., ... differently if in fact they’re one and the same?"

The state of play: The bill's sponsors think it's a "common sense" bill that should pass easily. It has broad bipartisan support in both chambers, including from congressional leadership, and has even been endorsed by some of Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists.

  • Rubio, who has discussed the bill with the president, says there has "been zero hesitancy" from the White House on this and that the State Department has been working closely with Congress in helping craft the bill's language.
  • Leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee say it is also planning to mark up the House's version of the bill this week.
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