US President Donald Trump has signed two bills relating to Hong Kong. Photo: Handout

Observers say US sanctions against those perceived as undermining Hong Kong’s standing, autonomy and liberty, as well as retaliation from Beijing, were unlikely to happen any time soon, despite US President Donald Trump signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act on Thursday.

Nor will there be any immediate threat to the territory’s separate customs status recognized by Washington for favorable trade treatment. However, that will come under annual review under the new legislation, in the broader context of the city’s continuity as a bastion of freedom and human rights on the edge of a massive communist regime.

Trump also signed a bill forbidding the export of crowd control gear and equipment to Hong Kong.

A White House statement on the signing of the two bills.

An associate professor with Peking University’s School of Governance who wished to remain anonymous told Asia Times that in a nutshell, the Hong Kong act would simply request the US state secretary to produce an annual report on the state of the city to determine if any sanctions or scrapping of preferential treatment would be warranted.

“But the state secretary can just say everything is fine and dandy in Hong Kong and nothing needs to be done about it in his report, just like the British foreign secretary would alway pat himself on the back and say nothing is too bad in its former colony in its six-monthly report on the city,” said the scholar.

London always concluded in its reports submitted to the British Parliament that the autonomy and personal freedoms in Hong Kong were sufficient for it to continue to operate under the “one country, two systems” framework, notwithstanding some worrying trends.

The associate professor also argued that the swift passage of the bill through the Congress had more to do with “political grandstanding” and Trump was merely sticking to the norm to sign a bill that commanded bipartisan endorsement, and that Beijing’s hefty backlash was also something of a routine protest.

He said the US was fully aware of the huge amount of trade surplus it had from Hong Kong each year and that trade with the city would always be mutually beneficial.

Sabrina You, a senior research fellow at the International Strategies Institute of the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies in Guangzhou, also noted that Beijing’s flak so far had not included any concrete threats of retaliation, like halting its trade talks with the US, and Beijing’s response was “measured” as the passage and the signing of the bill had long been expected.

“Beijing may choose to fight back with countervailing measures should the US move to sanction mainland and Hong Kong officials or strip the city of favorable trade status in the future, but not this time, as it knows the likelihood [of sanctions and trade punishment] is quite remote given the time needed and all the red tape between the State Department and the Congress,” said You.

A protester holding a banner demanding sanctions against Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam. Photo: RTHK

Ho Lok-sang, a former head of the Department of Economics at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, told local papers that the act could weigh heavily on Chinese cadres overseeing Hong Kong affairs as well as on local officials.

They may opt to shed their investments in the US, like in the realty sector or park their money elsewhere to avoid risks, and Hong Kong’s appeal to international investors may also be dampened due to the uncertainties arising from the act, he added.

In the meantime, activist Joshua Wong, who takes the credit for the legislation as he rallied support in the US earlier this year, said he would continue to seek further amendments to the act to include the family members of mainland and local officials for possible sanctions.

Read more: Hong Kong frets at talk of scrapping city’s special status

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