A Hong Kong protester waves American and Hong Kong flags in front of government headquarters, July 21, 2019. Photo: AFP/NurPhoto/Vernon Yuen

The Chinese State Council, foreign ministry, National People’s Congress as well as Beijing’s embassy in Washington and liaison office in Hong Kong all launched a chorus of protests shortly after the US Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, vowing “retaliation” should US President Donald Trump sign the bill into law.

A spokesman for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office said on Wednesday that the biggest threat the protest-hit Hong Kong had been facing since June was widespread unrest and violence, not an issue of human rights or democracy.

He lashed out at the US Congress, saying it was openly “aiding and abetting” rioters and anarchists in the territory.

A foreign affairs committee under the National People’s Congress also said the passage of the bill showed the “malicious intent” of the US Congress to try to upset Beijing and wreak further havoc in the city.

It was understood that the commissioner’s office of the Chinese foreign ministry in Hong Kong also lodged separate representations to Hanscom Smith, the US Consul General to the city, but just as American diplomats had previously told local media, the consulate and the US State Department could not interfere with bills tabled, deliberated and passed by lawmakers.

China also expressed “strong indignation” in October when the US House of Representatives passed a similar move, after some prominent activists from Hong Kong including Joshua Wong beseeched congressmen to back the act in hearings on the wellbeing of the city’s rights and freedoms.

Joshua Wong speaks at a US congressional hearing in Washington. Photo: Facebook

Beijing’s fear is that the bill may trigger a steady stream of similar decisions and sanctions by other Western powers because there have also been calls in the parliaments of the United Kingdom, Canada, Germany and others to table their respective acts to help safeguard democracy and freedoms in Hong Kong. These countries either have historical bonds or sizeable expat communities and a business presence in the territory.

The passage by both the lower and upper chambers of the US Congress shows that support cuts across party lines, and the act, after the Senate and House work out the differences in their respective versions, will be formally handed over to Trump, who would normally have about 10 days to decide whether to endorse or veto it.

It is believed that Trump is mindful not to let other “peripheral” issues scupper the ongoing trade talks with China, which is progressing toward the signing of a “phase one deal.” Hong Kong’s affairs are not high on his agenda, although he did make some appeals to Chinese President Xi Jinping to handle the situation in a “humane way” since the outbreak of turmoil in the city.

Still, the US president may also find it hard to veto an act that commands bipartisan support.

The act mandates sanctions against any mainland or Hong Kong officials who undermine the city’s liberty and autonomy, and requires an annual review by the Secretary of State about whether the city’s overall situation is satisfactory enough to warrant the continued special trade and separate customs status accorded by Washington.

In addition, US lawmakers have also approved a ban on the export of tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd-control and dispersal equipment to the Hong Kong police.

Protesters waving the Stars and Stripes along with the Hong Kong flag at a rally in the city. Photo: Twitter/Jay Yates

A statement from the Hong Kong government was also on message with Beijing’s official line, calling the move unnecessary and unwarranted. It said Hong Kong would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and that people’s rights and freedoms would be fully protected under the Basic Law and the “one county, two systems” framework.

Previously, Hong Kong’s commerce and trade minister Edward Yau said the city’s separate customs status with autonomy in commerce and trade had always been a provision in the Basic Law, not some “one-way, preferential treatment” offered by a foreign country, hinting that those reaping substantial benefits from economic and trade ties with the city may end up losing a lot should any unilateral changes occur.

Government data indeed back Yau’s claim: there are about 85,000 US citizens residing in Hong Kong, where 1,344 US firms, including Apple, Tesla, JP Morgan, Citi, Bank of America etc also use the city as a base for their operations across the Greater China Region and the rest of Asia.

“According to US statistics, the US has in the past ten years earned the largest worldwide bilateral trade surplus with Hong Kong amongst her trade partners in the world, at over US$33 billion in 2018,” said a Hong Kong government spokesman.

“Hong Kong’s economic and trade status is also the same as that of other members of the World Trade Organisation. Hong Kong has therefore established mutually beneficial co-operative relationship with various trade partners in the world including the US.”

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