The US Congress has approved a bill penalising banks doing business with Chinese officials behind a tough new security law Beijing enacted in Hong Kong this week.
The bill passed the Senate by unanimous consent on Thursday, a day after the House of Representatives also passed it without opposition, a rare example of overwhelming bipartisan support reflecting concern in Washington over the erosion of autonomy in the former British colony.
“This is an urgent moment. Our timing could not be more critical,” said Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, a lead sponsor of the “Hong Kong Autonomy Act,” in a Senate speech urging support for the legislation.
“Through this bill, the US Senate makes clear which side we are on” said Republican Senator Pat Toomey, who also introduced the measure.
The bill would impose sanctions on entities that help violate Hong Kong’s autonomy and financial institutions that do business with them.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, speaking in Beijing, warned the United States against signing or implementing the bill approved Thursday.
“Otherwise China will resolutely and forcefully resist,” he said.
China has already announced visa restrictions against the US “individuals who have behaved egregiously” on matters concerning Hong Kong.
The United States has also ended Hong Kong’s special status under US law, halting defence exports and restricting the territory’s access to high-technology products. The US Department of State meanwhile said it will bar officials responsible for rights abuses in Hong Kong from entering the country.
Warning to UK
Separately on Thursday, China slammed the United Kingdom’s decision to offer a path to citizenship for Hong Kong’s residents, threatening potential “corresponding measures” and warning against interference in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
In a statement , the Chinese embassy in London stressed all “Chinese compatriots residing in Hong Kong are Chinese nationals”, and said the UK’s offer was a violation of past communications between the two sides.
The British move could allow up to three million residents of Hong Kong to settle in the UK and ultimately apply for citizenship. The city was a British territory until its return to Chinese rule in 1997, and at the time of the handover, China promised to guarantee the city’s legislative and judicial autonomy under a “one country, two systems” policy for 50 years.
But with Beijing seeking to punish what it calls separatism and foreign interference in Hong Kong, critics fear the legislation could put an end to the city’s autonomy and freedoms, including the right to free speech and assembly.
Australia has also criticised Beijing’s move, and said it was considering providing “similar opportunities” to Hong Kong people as those offered by the UK.
In its statement, the Chinese embassy in London called on the British government to “view objectively and fairly” the national security law and respect Beijing’s position.
“If the British side makes unilateral changes to the relevant practice, it will breach its own position and pledges as well as international law and basic norms governing international relations,” it said, adding: “We firmly oppose this and reserve the right to take corresponding measures.”
It did not elaborate further.
Separately, Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing claims as its own, warned Taiwanese citizens to avoid unnecessary visits to or transit through Hong Kong, Macau or mainland China, calling the law “the most outrageous in history”.
In Hong Kong, a group of pro-Beijing legislators and about 20 supporters gathered outside the US consulate on Thursday to condemn “American and foreign meddling in China’s internal affairs”.
Elizabeth Quat, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature, said the arrest of some 370 protesters during demonstrations against the law on Wednesday showed the legislation was necessary to “restore” peace to the city.
Hong Kong was plunged into turmoil last year when a bill proposing extradition to mainland China triggered months of mass protests that at times descended into violence. The protests succeeded in getting authorities in Hong Kong to shelve the extradition bill, but prompted the central government in Beijing to bypass the city’s legislature and impose the national security law.
Chinese state media on Thursday said the legislation would bring “prosperity and stability”.
“We must face up to the fact that the existence of legal loopholes in safeguarding national security has already made Hong Kong society pay a heavy price,” a commentary in the People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party, read.
One of Hong Kong’s most prominent young democracy activists, Nathan Law, announced he had fled overseas and will “continue the advocacy work on the international level”.
The revelation came as Hong Kong’s local government confirmed that a popular protest slogan used over the last year was now illegal.
“Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times” has become a clarion call for pro-democracy protesters over the last year, chanted by huge crowds and plastered on banners.
It could be heard on the streets a day earlier as thousands of residents defied a protest ban on Wednesday – the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China – blocking roads and voicing opposition to the bill in some of the worst unrest in months.
Police responded with water cannon, pepper spray and tear gas. Seven officers were injured, including one who was stabbed in the shoulder and three others hit by a protester on a motorbike.
Ten people were arrested under the new law, most of whom were carrying flags or leaflets advocating for Hong Kong independence.