(Bloomberg) -- U.S. lawmakers say they are moving forward with attempts to pressure Hong Kong’s government over its treatment of protesters by threatening the territory’s special trading status.
“It is my belief that it is long overdue for the United States and the free world to respond,” Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said Tuesday at the opening of a hearing of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
Rubio is sponsor of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which would allow sanctions on Chinese officials and require annual assessments of whether the city is sufficiently autonomous from Beijing to continue its special trading status. Similar legislation has been introduced in the House with bipartisan support.
Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch said the bill would get quick review by the committee beginning Wednesday and move onto the Senate floor with the support of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“The aspiration is everybody wants to move this bill and so we’re going to do our best to move it was quickly as we can,” said Risch, an Idaho Republican.
Revoking Hong Kong’s special trading status could devastate the city’s economy, making it a crucial point of leverage. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam warned on Tuesday that any sanctions would only complicate the problems in the city, which has been wracked by protests since June.
“It is time we put the Chinese government on annual notice that further erosion of autonomy or a crackdown in Hong Kong will cause the city, and by extension, mainland China, to lose its special economic and trade arrangement with the United States,” said Representative Jim McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, who is chairman of the commission.
Hong Kong’s government expressed “deep regret” Wednesday over remarks made by its citizens at the hearing, saying in a statement that “foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form” in the city’s internal affairs.
The government “absolutely respects the public’s freedoms and rights of assembly, procession and expression,” it said. “The police will continue to fully facilitate the conduct of peaceful and rational public events by members of the public.”
McGovern is sponsoring separate legislation, the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, which would prohibit U.S. companies from exporting crowd control equipment and munitions such as tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong. He predicted that Congress would pass his measure as well as the human rights measure.
“I believe, and I can probably give you assurances, that we will do that,” McGovern told a panel of witnesses which included activists from Hong Kong.
China’s foreign ministry pushed back Wednesday. “We urge the U.S. and other sides to stop interfering in China’s affairs and we would like to warn certain people that any attempts to disrupt Hong Kong by soliciting foreign support will not succeed,” ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing.
The activists who testified found a receptive audience for their pleas that the U.S. should act to support the pro-democracy movement.
“I hope that historians will celebrate the United States Congress for having stood on the side of Hong Kongers, the side of human rights and democracy,” said Joshua Wong, a prominent student leader of the city’s 2014 Occupy movement.
Denise Ho, a pro-democracy activist, singer and actress who also testified, said Hong Kong is at the front line of “a global fight for the universal values that we all cherish.”
The Hong Kong protests started in opposition to legislation allowing extraditions to mainland China and widened into a broader movement against Beijing’s increasing grip on the city. They show no signs of stopping anytime soon, even after Lam scrapped the bill on Sept. 4.
“I uphold this principle of accountability, but at the moment it is all for us to see that Hong Kong is undergoing a very difficult situation,” Lam said Tuesday at a regular media briefing before a meeting of the city’s Executive Council. “And sanctions or punishment are not going to help lift Hong Kong out of this very difficult situation.”
Representative Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, said he expected that his Hong Kong measure would get a committee vote on Sept. 25. Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, said the eventual bill would be some form of the Smith-Rubio legislation. “We are going to do something for sure,” Engel added. “We have to do something.”
Both the House and Senate bills have bipartisan support. The White House hasn’t formally weighed in on the legislation. President Donald Trump has called on the Chinese government to handle the protesters “in a very humane way” but hasn’t delivered any extended remarks on the situation.
(Updates with Hong Kong government comment from eighth paragraph.)
--With assistance from Natalie Lung, Karen Leigh, Erik Wasson and Kevin Hamlin.
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