Donald Trump has signed into law legislation backing pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, despite angry objections from Beijing.
The legislation, approved unanimously by the US Senate and by all but one lawmaker in the House of Representatives last week, requires the state department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to justify favorable US trading terms that have helped it maintain its position as a world financial center. The law also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.
Congress passed a second bill, which Trump also signed, banning the export to the Hong Kong police of crowd-control munitions, such as teargas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.
“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong. They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all,” Trump said in a statement on Wednesday.
The move on Wednesday comes at a time when the US president is seeking a deal with China to end a damaging trade war. China has denounced the legislation as gross interference in its affairs and a violation of international law.
At the heart of the matter is Beijing’s promise to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years when it regained sovereignty over the city in 1997, a pledge that has formed the basis of the territory’s special status under US law. Protesters say freedoms have been steadily eroded.
Trump had been vague about whether he would sign or veto the legislation, while trying to strike a deal with China on trade that he has made a top priority ahead of his 2020 re-election bid.
After the Senate passed the legislation, Beijing vowed counter-measures to safeguard its sovereignty and security. Its foreign ministry said the US must immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong and China’s other internal affairs, or “the negative consequences will boomerang on itself”.
If Trump had opted to use his veto, it could have been overridden by two-thirds votes in both the Senate and the House – easily attainable as measured by the votes in each chamber. The legislation would have automatically become law on 3 December if Trump had opted to do nothing.
The Republican senator Marco Rubio applauded Trump’s decision to sign the bill. “The US now has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” Rubio said in a statement.
Last week, Trump boasted that he alone had prevented Beijing from crushing the demonstrations with a million soldiers, adding that he had told the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, that doing so would have “a tremendous negative impact” on trade talks.
Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.
Trump again referred to “riots” last week, but has also called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning repeatedly of the impact on trade talks.
Many see the US legislation as symbolic, but the bills’ provisions have the potential, if implemented, to upend relations between the United States and Hong Kong and change the territory’s status to that of any other Chinese city.
Analysts say any move to end Hong Kong’s special treatment could prove self-defeating for the United States, which has benefited from the business-friendly conditions in the territory.
According to the state department, 85,000 US citizens lived in Hong Kong in 2018 and more than 1,300 US companies operate there, including nearly every major US financial firm. Trade between Hong Kong and the United States was estimated to be worth $67.3bn in 2018.