Trump signed an act in support of the protest movement despite a potential backlash from Beijing that could derail delicate US-China trade talks, after it was passed almost unanimously by both houses of Congress.
Anti-government protesters in the semi-autonomous Chinese city have long campaigned in favor of the bill — which would permit Washington to impose sanctions or even suspend Hong Kong‘s special trading status over rights violations. Trump‘s decision to sign the act gives the movement a second major symbolic victory in a matter of days.
On Sunday, pro-democracy candidates scored a landslide victory in district council elections, framed as a de-facto referendum on the protest movement, which began in June in opposition to a controversial extradition bill but has grown to include demands for greater democratic freedoms and inquiries into alleged police brutality.
Shortly after the bill was signed into law, China’s Foreign Ministry accused the US of “bullying behavior,” “disregarding the facts” and “publicly supporting violent criminals.”
“We urge the United States not to insist on going down this path, or China would firmly strike back and the United States would have to bear all consequences,” the statement read.
The Chinese government also summoned the US envoy to China, Ambassador Terry Branstad, to “lodge solemn representation and strong protest” over the measure.
While the unrest in Hong Kong began with peaceful mass marches, as the movement has dragged on, protests have gotten increasingly violent, and the last two weeks saw several universities occupied by demonstrators.
The most intense standoff — between police and protesters around the centrally located campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU) — appears to be coming to an end.
What happens next?
The main bill that Trump signed into law, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, requires the State Department to annually review whether the city is “sufficiently autonomous” to justify its special trading status with the US.
If it is found not to be, the law could result in Washington withdrawing that status, which would be a massive blow to Hong Kong’s economy.
The US is Hong Kong’s second biggest partner in terms of total trade, according to figures from the Hong Kong government. Washington exported $50 billion worth of goods and services to the territory in 2018, US figures show.
Susan Thornton, who served as the State Department’s top Asia diplomat early in the Trump administration, said in an interview last month that she worried the legislation could end up “punishing exactly the wrong people.”
A companion piece of legislation passed by Trump bans the export of certain crowd control items to Hong Kong, like tear gas and rubber bullets — gear that the city could also buy from mainland China.
In a statement after Trump signed the bills into law, the Hong Kong government said they were “unreasonable” and would “send an erroneous signal to protesters, which is not conducive to alleviating the situation in Hong Kong.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, who authored the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, has previously denied that charge.
“Our treatment of Hong Kong is an internal matter. It’s a matter of our own public policy,” Rubio said in an interview with CNBC. “We have a right to change our law.”