Already fraught US-China relations took another turn for the contentious on Tuesday evening when the US Senate passed bipartisan legislation in support of the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.
The bill requires an annual review of whether the city retains enough autonomy to warrant the special trade status it’s afforded. Lawmakers in the chamber moved quickly this week after a severe escalation in violence over the weekend threatened to plunge the city further into chaos.
A little over a month ago, on October 15, the House passed a similar measure. “Democrats and Republicans in the House and in the Senate stand united with the people of Hong Kong”, Nancy Pelosi said at the time. “If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interest, then we lose all moral authority to speak out for human rights anyplace in the world”.
The Speaker was, of course, referring to the possibility that concerns about keeping the trade negotiations alive have constrained the White House from making an unequivocal statement in support of the protesters.
According to reports, Donald Trump promised Xi he would stay largely quiet on the issue during a June 18 phone call, the account of which was transferred to the same code-word only database used to warehouse the transcript of the Ukraine call during which Trump pressed Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden, according to sources.
Trump has, at best, offered lukewarm support for the protesters, calling on both sides to deescalate and encouraging a dialogue. He has not openly and forcefully condemned Beijing on the issue, although the White House has been very aggressive when it comes to human rights abuses tied to the plight of the Uighurs.
On Monday, Mitch McConnell urged Trump to speak up. “President Trump should speak out about the situation in Hong Kong and the world should hear from him directly”, McConnell said on the Senate floor.
Last month, when the House version of the legislation passed, Beijing promised to retaliate, although Chinese officials did not say what, exactly, they planned to do.
“The United States has treated commerce and trade with Hong Kong differently than it has commercial and trade activity with mainland China”, Marco Rubio, the bill’s lead sponsor, said Tuesday. “What’s happened over the last few years is the steady effort on the part of Chinese authorities to erode that autonomy and those freedoms”.
It’s not a stretch to suggest that this will become intertwined with the signing of the “Phase One” trade deal, which has already hit a number of stumbling blocks. It seems unlikely that Xi will be willing to offer concessions on trade if the Hong Kong bill becomes law, especially on the heels of the Hikvision blacklisting and Mike Pence’s speech last month (which wasn’t as harsh as feared, but still came across as overtly condescending).
First thing Wednesday, China protested the passage of the bill and urged the US to take steps “immediately” to prevent it from becoming law. That’s according to foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
The Senate and House versions will need to be reconciled before the legislation can be sent to Trump. It’s not clear how the president will react.