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Trump signs Hong Kong democracy legislation, angering China

China's Foreign Ministry was furious, saying the bill "seriously interfered with Hong Kong affairs, seriously interfered with China's internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and basic norms of international relations."

By Emily Cochrane, Edward Wong and Keith Bradsher
Published: Nov 28, 2019

Trump signs Hong Kong democracy legislation, angering ChinaProtesters during a clash with riot police officers near the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, Nov. 17, 2019. President Donald Trump on Wednesday, November 27, signed tough legislation that would impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, expressing support for pro-democracy activists in the territory and likely angering China as the two countries negotiate ending the ongoing trade war.
Image: Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed tough legislation that authorizes sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, signaling support for pro-democracy activists and escalating tensions with Beijing as Trump tries to negotiate a trade deal with Chinese leaders.

China’s Foreign Ministry was furious, saying the bill “seriously interfered with Hong Kong affairs, seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and basic norms of international relations.” The ministry warned the United States against acting arbitrarily and said that any consequences would “be borne by the United States.”

Whether Trump would sign the legislation had been a subject of debate. He refused to commit to doing so as late as Friday, saying that he supported the protesters but that President Xi Jinping of China was “a friend of mine.” But Trump was left with few options. The bill had passed both the House and the Senate by veto-proof majorities.

Trump’s decision, publicly announced the evening before Thanksgiving and after markets had closed, throws a potential wrench into the U.S.’ bilateral trade talks with China. Both countries have tried to keep the Hong Kong issue separate from their negotiations, which have been moving slowly.

Trump said his decision was not a sign of disrespect toward Xi, even though China’s government had demanded that the president reject the measure. Trump had previously skirted around the battles between pro-democracy demonstrators and police officers enforcing China’s authoritarian stance in Hong Kong.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement Wednesday. “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.”

The second bill that Trump signed bans the sale of crowd-control munitions like tear gas and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police.

The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong expressed its strong displeasure, calling the two measures “unnecessary and unwarranted” and saying they “would harm the relations and common interests between Hong Kong and the U.S.”

The Hong Kong government vigorously argued that the bills were not necessary, especially after the territory was able to hold peaceful local elections last Sunday in which anti-government candidates won 87% of the seats. The vote showed that “democracy is alive and well,” said Ronny Tong, a member of the cabinet of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive.

The main measure, titled the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, would compel the United States to impose sanctions on officials. It would also require the State Department to annually review the special autonomous status it grants the territory in trade considerations. That status is separate from the relationship with mainland China, and revoking it would mean less favorable trade conditions between the United States and Hong Kong.

Protesters said the law would give them more leverage over officials in Beijing and in Hong Kong who want to maintain good relations with the United States and to preserve the special trade status.

“I hope it can act as a warning to Hong Kong and Beijing officials, pro-Beijing people and the police,” said Nelson Lam, 32, a food importer. “I think if they know that what they do may lead to sanctions, then they will become restrained when dealing with protests. We just want our autonomy back. We are not their foe.”

The Chinese Foreign Ministry stopped short of linking Hong Kong in any way to the trade talks, although trade is outside its jurisdiction.

Although Trump announced last month that the United States and China had reached a “historic” Phase 1 trade agreement, signing a deal has proved elusive. Trump has continued to be coy about whether he will agree to remove any of the tariffs he has placed on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods. The United States has to decide by Dec. 15 whether to impose another round of tariffs on even more Chinese imports, including consumer goods like smartphones and laptops.

In recent months, a bipartisan push to confront China and its authoritarian leader has grown on a wide range of issues, including Beijing’s commercial practices and its global infrastructure projects. The United States has also protested the detention of at least 1 million Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority, in northwest China.

Trump has been trying to get China to agree to a trade deal that would benefit American farmers and manufacturers and allow technology firms to operate more freely in that country. The desire to sign a deal that ends pain for American farmers has become particularly important before the 2020 presidential election, and Trump has left the impression that all other issues related to China are secondary, especially ones related to human rights.

Last Friday, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump said, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.” Last June, Trump promised Xi in a telephone conversation that he would not speak out in support of the Hong Kong protests as long as trade talks were progressing. Trump did mention Hong Kong during a speech in September at the U.N. General Assembly but did so while praising Xi, and he has not consistently made strong statements on Hong Kong.

Even as he announced he was signing the bills, Trump appeared to hedge his full-throated support for the broader legislation, saying that “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,” Trump said. He did not specify which parts of the bill posed such interference with executive powers.

In reply, the Democratic leader in the Senate, Chuck Schumer of New York, said on Twitter, “Decency, humanity, and the rule of law compel you to enforce it. Stop playing games.”

One of the main provisions compels the administration to impose economic and travel sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to be violating human rights in the territory. Trump or relevant agencies could try to slow-walk such sanctions — and might even use the threat of imposing them as a cudgel against China in trade negotiations.

Trump has refused to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for the mass detention of Muslims, despite recommendations to do so by some U.S. officials.

For months, Hong Kong protesters had called for the United States to pass the bill. Protesters in October even held a rally supporting the bill that was attended by more than 100,000 people; many waved American flags or wrapped them around their bodies.

©2019 New York Times News Service