A Hong Kong protester in front of a US flag singing the Star-Spangled Banner at Hong Kong University campus on September 20, 2019. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/Anthony Wallace

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam faces renewed calls to accede to the demands of anti-government protesters after district council elections in the Chinese city delivered a landslide majority to pan-democratic candidates, in what was widely seen as a referendum on her polarizing handling of the city’s political crisis.

Sunday’s dramatic democratic rout arguably piles new pressure on US President Donald Trump, who has yet to signal whether he will sign punitive legislation backing Hong Kong’s protesters that passed Congress nearly unanimously.

With Beijing condemning the pending Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as tantamount to foreign meddling, analysts say its passage could complicate, if not scupper, ongoing and delicate US-China talks towards a “phase one” trade agreement.

On Monday (November 25), Beijing summoned US Ambassador to China Terry Branstad to lodge its “strong protest” over the bill, the foreign ministry said in a statement that sternly asserted that the US would “bear all the consequences” if it did not scrap the legislation.

The bi-partisan bill “brazenly interferes in China’s internal affairs” and “indulges and supports the violent criminal behavior by ‘anti-China disrupting Hong Kong’ forces,” the ministry statement said.

Since protests began in June, Trump has called on Beijing to deal with the unrest in a “peaceful” and “humane” manner, and said trade negotiations would be affected “if anything bad” were to happen to the protesters, an apparent warning against a Chinese military intervention to put down the demonstrations.

But the mercurial US leader has remained non-committal toward the bipartisan bill, saying only that his administration would take a “good look” at it.

US President Donald Trump holds a letter presented to him by Chinese Vice Premier Liu He in the Oval Office of the White House, Oct. 11, 2019. Photo: Twitter

The measure allows for the imposition of sanctions against officials responsible for human rights abuses and would require the State Department to annually certify that Hong Kong retains sufficient autonomy to continue qualifying as a separate customs and trading zone from mainland China under US law.

At present, the territory’s special trade and financial status exempt it from Trump’s trade war tariffs. Rescinding that status, if the US chose to do so in response to a violent crackdown or as a punitive measure, is seen by some as a “nuclear option” that would deal a harsh blow to a global financial center that has long served as a business gateway into China.

A change in US recognition of the Chinese territory’s special status could negatively affect the more than 1,300 US companies that operate in Hong Kong, including nearly every major American financial firm. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong has said such a course of action would have “a chilling effect” on US trade and investment there.

“It appears to me that the closer he (Trump) is to reaching a potential trade deal with Chinese officials, the less outspoken for Hong Kong he is. And on the other hand, when the trade deals seem to be falling apart, he tends to bring up Hong Kong,” said Jeffrey Ngo, chief researcher for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy Demosisto organization.

“The bottom line is that how he assesses the situation in Hong Kong is closely linked to the progress of the trade talks,” said Ngo, who is pursuing a PhD in history at Georgetown University and sits on the advisory board of the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), a Washington DC-based lobbying group.

While once appearing to prioritize a peaceful outcome for Hong Kong ahead of trade matters, Trump’s recent remarks suggest that considerations have changed. “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi [Jinping],” he said. “I stand with freedom…but we are also in the process of making the largest trade deal in history.”

Pro-democracy supporters celebrate after pro-Beijing candidate Junius Ho lost his seat in Tuen Mun district on November 25, 2019. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

“We’ve seen Trump personally shy away from the Hong Kong issue for a focus on trade,” said Tom Fowdy, an Oxford University-educated British political and international relations analyst, who noted that the administration’s stance has become more “conservative and cautious” in recent weeks, evidenced by a press statement condemning violence “on all sides.”

“I don’t think Trump personally has much of a political choice because if he aggressively opposes the bill this will cost him support in the Republican Party during a very sensitive time,” Fowdy said, alluding to an ongoing impeachment inquiry that Trump himself has dismissed as politically motivated with many Republicans rallying to his defense.

Trump has until early next month to decide whether to sign the bill, which will automatically become law on December 3 if he opts to do nothing. If Trump issues a veto, the bill could be overridden by two-thirds majorities in both the House of Representatives and Senate and still become law. He would also be seen as siding with Beijing if he does so.

“I think his options for rejecting it and vetoing it are limited, so it’s more likely to go into law passively if he really doesn’t want to sign it,” Fowdy told Asia Times, adding that Trump could also sign the bill “quietly and reluctantly.” He could possibly sign the legislation while offering a conciliatory statement to Beijing to soften the blow of promised retaliation, some analysts suggest.

China’s foreign ministry has persistently railed against the bill vowing strong countermeasures if passed, though Beijing has given no indication of what kind of retaliatory response it would take. “Their retaliation will be more measured then excessive in practice. They’re still very sensitive not to further escalate the situation with the United States,” Fowdy believes.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam (L) with Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) during her swearing in as the city’s leader in a file photo. Photo: Twitter

Beijing, he says, would likely only reciprocate if sanctions were imposed on senior officials in Hong Kong or on those in charge of the semi-autonomous city’s status. China sees the bill as giving momentum to “radical protesters who have been engaging in destruction and violence” and a bid to undermine Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland, he added.

Ngo, who personally lobbied US lawmakers to pass the legislation, told Asia Times that the bill is symbolic because it demonstrates that “US policy on Hong Kong is not just about economic and cultural ties, but about universal values and having a new framework [for] leverage over the Chinese government when it comes to Hong Kong’s affairs.”

The legislation, he added, sends an important signal to Beijing to uphold the promises made in 1984 with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty which laid the groundwork for the city’s return to China in 1997 after 156 years of British colonial rule and promised a high degree of autonomy and protection of rights and freedoms not available on the mainland.

Ngo says he is confident the Trump administration and future administrations would look into sanctioning officials as provided for in the bill. When asked whether its passage would bring changes to Hong Kong’s special trading status, he said it was difficult to say whether the current administration would do so, but that such legislation “outlasts presidencies.”

“We have focused our advocacy work in the Congress so far and we haven’t had extended conversations with people in the administration with regard to the implementation. We will as Hong Kong activists try our best to make our case that when they consider whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous enough, that they look at various indicators,” Ngo said.

A protester readies to throw a Molotov cocktail at police during a rally in Hong Kong on September 29, 2019. Photo: Anadolu Agency

Fowdy, for one, finds the legislation problematic. “In my opinion, those who are pushing the bill most aggressively in the United States Congress have a very strong set of political ambitions behind it,” he said, naming lawmakers Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz. “As a result, it’s very one-sided.”

Provisions in the bill “raise the stakes on what constitutes Hong Kong’s definition of autonomy in the sense of American law” by ordering assessments on Hong Kong’s compliance with US sanctions on Iran and North Korea, and the city’s compliance with extradition requests from the US government.

While the bill threatens state officials with sanctions in connection with human rights abuses, it contains no requisite language compelling demonstrators to uphold peaceful conduct. A segment of the city’s activists use violent tactics in their stand-offs with police, while ghastly assaults have reportedly taken place against civilians critical of the protests.

A previous wording of provisions in the legislation stated that the US government would allow peaceful protesters to apply for a US visa without obstruction. According to a report in the Hong Kong Free Press, lobbying groups advocating for the bill succeeded in getting the text amended to remove the term “peaceful” in addition to other changes.

Fowdy said US lawmakers should “attach conditions to uphold peaceful protest and resolution rather than giving blanket support” to the demonstrators. “Those who are supporting it and championing it [in Congress] are not actually willing to acknowledge that violence exists on the side of the protesters at all.”

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