Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. Graphic: Wikipedia
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in September 2017. Graphic: Wikipedia

The US Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA) officially become law when President Donald Trump signed the bill on November 27. The bill passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 417-1 on November 20, the lone holdout being Republican Representative Thomas Massie.

The House vote took place one day after the Senate approved the measure unanimously via voice vote.

The bill was originally introduced back in 2014 when the so-called Umbrella Movement protests broke out in Hong Kong, but it failed to get sufficient congressional support for passage. When the bill eventually gained passage in Congress half a decade later, the climate had changed dramatically. The US and China are currently locked in a bitter trade war and the HKHRDA opens a new front in America’s increasingly muscular approach against China as the two countries battle for supremacy in the 21st century.

Many prominent US politicians have voiced support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. In August, a bipartisan group of US senators even wrote a joint letter to Trump to urge him to adopt a tougher stance against China on Hong Kong and support the democracy movement.

While the sincerity of many members of Congress on this issue is not in dispute, this entire saga reeks of hypocrisy and damages American credibility abroad. While American politicians accuse China of disrespecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and not taking care of its people, many have conveniently forgotten that the United States is just as guilty in regards to Puerto Rico.

Just as Hong Kong is part of China, Puerto Rico is part of the United States. Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China with a high degree of autonomy, while Beijing has supreme sovereignty over the city. Puerto Rico is a US territory with no statehood granted to it; it has its own government but Washington has the final jurisdiction over the island.

The people of Puerto Rico, just like people in the mainland United States, are American citizens, and yet Puerto Rico doesn’t have any elected representatives in Washington to fight for its interests.

Jenniffer Gonzalez, a Republican, has been representing Puerto Rico since 2017 as a non-voting member of the House of Representatives. Gonzalez is not allowed to vote on final legislative measures on the floor, but she is allowed to vote in committees, introduce legislation, and co-sponsor proposals. Thus Puerto Rico suffers from a lack of fair representation and its citizens are de facto second-class citizens of the United States.

People of Puerto Rico have served in the US armed forces, pay US taxes and have fulfilled every obligation demanded of them as US citizens and yet when laws  arepassed in Washington that will affect everyone on the island, its people don’t have any say. For years, Puerto Rico has fought hard to be granted statehood but it faces hurdles in Congress.

In 2017, the Puerto Rican government held a public referendum to guide the official position of the island. More than 97% of Puerto Ricans supported statehood, and yet the result has been ignored by the US government. Thus it is guilty of the very same charge it has thrown against China for going against the will of the people of Hong Kong protesting for greater democracy.

Puerto Rico was devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, which left thousands dead and thousands more injured. Nearly two years after the storm, the island is still struggling to recover and the federal government has been rightly criticized for its inadequate support for the island’s disaster-prevention efforts.

In May, when Congress debated a disaster-relief bill for Puerto Rico, the Republicans opposed giving more aid to the island, as did President Donald Trump.

Recently, the Trump administration was reported to have been illegally withholding $18 billion in disaster funds appropriated for Puerto Rico.

The people of Puerto Rico are by law citizens of the United States and there is no reason for them to be treated differently from their fellow citizens living in other parts of the country. But we have yet to see the same bipartisan spirit shown on Hong Kong to be accorded to Puerto Rico.

Will the Speaker of the House and the US Senate majority leader introduce a bill in Congress to require the Trump administration finally to live up to its responsibility to Puerto Rico? Will both chambers of Congress pass the bill with the same majority they gave to the Hong Kong bill?

And will the US Congress and the Trump administration pass and enact a law finally to grant statehood to Puerto Rico?

Until the US does something about Puerto Rico, it will find it hard to have the moral authority to question other countries for their perceived shortfalls.

The US must be seen as following what it has preached and not selectively adhering to its principles as and when it likes.

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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