Secondary school students attend a rally at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong on August 22, 2019.
Anthony Wallace | AFP | Getty Images
Trump signed two bills on Wednesday pertaining to Hong Kong: One involves an annual review of the city’s autonomy from China; the another bars the sale of munitions to Hong Kong police, such as tear gas and rubber bullets.
It is the first — the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 — that could lead to the removal of the so-called special status that Hong Kong currently enjoys, and that could hurt the Chinese territory’s economic prospects and businesses that operate there.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997, has seen widespread demonstrations since June, some of which have led to violent clashes between protesters and the police. The protests were initially sparked by a proposed law that would have allowed extradition to mainland China, but the unrest later morphed into broader anti-government demonstrations that include demands such as greater democracy and universal suffrage.
The two U.S. laws come amid widespread criticism of heavy-handed treatment of protesters by the Hong Kong police and government, which Beijing supports.
Political News: Protecting Hong Kong
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 include the following provisions:
- Requiring the U.S. State Department to annually review whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous” from China to justify its “unique treatment” under U.S. law
- Requiring the American president to impose sanctions on individuals found violating human rights in Hong Kong by freezing their assets and denying them entry into the U.S.
- U.S. visas to Hong Kong applicants may not be denied because they’ve been arrested or detained for taking part in pro-democracy protests
The bill was touted by Congress as a way to deter Beijing’s influence and interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. But many analysts have said it’s largely “symbolic” in nature.
“I think it’s (a) significant but symbolic step,” Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Project at Australian think tank Lowy Institute, said last week before Congress passed the two bills.
“It’s really important for the Hong Kong democracy movement. Many people on the streets have been calling for the U.S. to signal its support and to signal its dissatisfaction with what the Chinese government has been doing in Hong Kong over the last few years: Squeezing the city’s freedom and autonomy,” he told CNBC’s “Squawk Box Asia.”
Political News: Losing special status
As a special administrative region of China, Hong Kong is governed under the “one country, two systems” principle. Under that structure, Hong Kong is given self-governing power, a largely separate legal and economic framework from China, and various freedoms including limited election rights.
Such a system underpins Hong Kong’s status as a global financial and business center, especially as a middleman between China and the world. The city’s autonomy from China is also a reason why the U.S. treats it differently from other Chinese cities. For example, elevated U.S. tariffs imposed on China in the trade war don’t apply to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s importance to the Chinese economy is disproportionate to its size.
Peterson Institute for International Economics
Losing that special treatment would damage the city’s economy, and its repercussions could potentially feed through the global financial system.
To be sure, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 by itself doesn’t mandate the removal of the territory’s special status if the U.S. finds that Hong Kong is not sufficiently autonomous from China. The revocation has to come from Trump through an executive order, or Congress via the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, which spells out Washington’s special treatment of the city.
Nevertheless, analysts said Washington is not likely to go so far as to revoke the city’s special status, given the economic stake the U.S. has in Hong Kong.
Political News: US interests in Hong Kong
One reason why Washington wouldn’t cancel Hong Kong’s special status is the tight trade and financial relationship between the two, observers said.
On its website, the State Department said that more than 1,300 American firms operate in Hong Kong, of which 300 base their Asian regional operations there. Nearly all major U.S. financial firms have a presence there.
On trade, Hong Kong has been a major destination for U.S. legal and accounting services, according to the State Department. Last year, the U.S.’s largest goods trade surplus worldwide — at $31.1 billion — was with Hong Kong, the State Department said.
Many of those relationships were