President Trump on Wednesday signed two bills meant to support human rights and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, drawing a furious response from Beijing’s foreign ministry.
The bills were signed as Hong Kong continues to be gripped by turmoil amid widespread discontent over Chinese rule in the special administrative region. Chinese officials had hoped Trump would veto the bill and the president had expressed some concerns about complicating the effort to work out a trade deal with China’s President Xi Jinping.
“Look, we have to stand with Hong Kong,” Trump said in an interview on “Fox & Friends” last week, later adding: “But I’m also standing with President Xi. He’s a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy.”
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act mandates sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses and requires an annual review of the favorable trade status that Washington grants Hong Kong. The second bill prohibits export to Hong Kong police of certain nonlethal munitions, including tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons, stun guns and tasers.
“The act reaffirms and amends the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, specifies United States policy towards Hong Kong, and directs assessment of the political developments in Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement.
He added: “Certain provisions of the Act would interfere with the exercise of the President’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States. My administration will treat each of the provisions of the Act consistently with the president’s constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations.”
The munitions bill was passed unanimously, while Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky., was the sole House member to oppose the human rights bill. Before Wednesday’s signing announcement, Trump would only commit to giving the measures a “hard look.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said earlier this month the act undermines both American and Chinese interests in Hong Kong.
“We urge the U.S. to grasp the situation, stop its wrongdoing before it’s too late, prevent this act from becoming law [and] immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs,” Geng said at the time, adding: “If the U.S. continues to make the wrong moves, China will be taking strong countermeasures for sure.”
On Thursday, a foreign ministry statement described Trump’s signing of the bills as a “hegemonic act,” repeated heated condemnations of the law and vows that China would take “firm countermeasures.” The statement also claimed that all the people of Hong Kong and China oppose the move, but did not specify how Beijing would respond.
Hong Kong kept its advantageous trading status with the U.S. upon its 1997 handover to China by the U.K., in recognition of Beijing’s pledge to allow it to retain its own laws, independent judiciary and civil and economic freedoms.
That independent status has come into question amid moves by Beijing to gradually strengthen its political control over the territory, helping spark months of increasingly violent protests.
Earlier in November, China’s legislature argued it had the sole right to interpret the validity of Hong Kong’s laws after the territory’s court struck down an order banning the wearing of masks at protests. Legal scholars described that as a power grab violating the governing framework known as “one country, two systems.”
With Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government refusing to enter into dialogue or make concessions, the territory’s police force has been given broad powers to quell the protests. That has brought numerous complaints of excessive use of force and the abuse of detainees, along with a near-complete lack of accountability for officers.