Last Tuesday, the American House of Representatives passed legislation condemning the Hong Kong government’s response to pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and other resolutions were passed through a voice vote, with rare bipartisan support, purport to support the protests in several ways. If passed through the Senate, these bills would initiate an annual review of Hong Kong’s special status as an autonomous trading partner, as well as ban commercial exports of crowd control measures to Hong Kong, such as tear gas and rubber bullets. They also passed a non-binding resolution supporting the people of Hong Kong’s right to protest and condemned the Chinese government’s interference.
Protestors in Hong Kong rallied behind this legislation, seeing it as a win for freedom of speech and human rights on an international stage, reports Al Jazeera. The prime sponsor of the bill, Christopher Smith, said that the House was taking an aggressive stance to “simply urge” the Chinese President and Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong Chief Executive, to “faithfully honour the government’s promises” to uphold internationally recognised human rights and the rule of law in Hong Kong, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
The Chinese government has not responded positively to these bills. A spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry Geng Shuang said that, if passed, they would “seriously damage” U.S. interests in Hong Kong and its relationship with China, and said that China would take “strong countermeasures” against them, reports Politico. Indeed, this comes at a terse time for U.S.-China relations, as they negotiate around the trade tariffs that the U.S. has placed on China.
It is commendable, and almost amazing, that the House of Representatives was able to get bipartisan support for such a fundamental issue surrounding human rights on an international stage. As Nancy Pelosi put it, the protestors are standing bravely in the face of a “cowardly government that refuses to respect the rule of law.” This lends an essence of credibility to the protestors and may encourage Beijing to negotiate with the protestors so as not to lose its standing with the U.S.
However, historically the Chinese government has not responded well to what it sees as “external forces” meddling in internal affairs. The massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989 is an extreme example of that. It has been characterising the conflict in Hong Kong to suit its narrative of the protestors being Western-backed rioters eroding the sovereignty of China, rather than citizens who want their rights protected. China uses this narrative to justify the extreme response of the police, which includes torture and other extreme measures, as a field investigation done by Amnesty International in September discovered.
These bills going through the U.S. government are encouraging, however, what is worrisome is how the Chinese government will respond – whether it be through diplomatic means or more violent measures against the protestors. Chinese President Xi Jinping has not shied away from violent rhetoric, saying that any attempt to separate China would result in “bodies smashed and bones ground to powder.” Hopefully, the extra political support from the U.S. for the protestors will inspire the Hong Kong government to negotiate, in the interests of finding a peaceful resolution to this conflict.
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