Oct. 16 (UPI) -- The U.S. House of Representatives has passed legislation in support of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong that could lead to sanctions and other political consequences against China, which threatened to implement countermeasures if they become law.
The House passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 on Tuesday that if enacted by Congress would require several agencies to annually assess whether Hong Kong's civil liberties and rule of law have been eroded by China to justify the region's unique treatment as a separate trading partner under U.S. law.
The bipartisan bill also permits sanctions to be applied and allows certain Hong Kong citizens who have been arrested for participating in political protests to receive U.S. work and student visas.
Introduced in July by Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., the bill is to urge the Chinese government and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to honor the freedoms given to the semi-autonomous region under the pact that returned the former British colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
"I've heard it said that 'the business of Hong Kong is business,'" Smith said in his remarks prior to the vote, "but it is clear to me now that the business of Hong Kong is freedom and democracy."
China swiftly condemned the bill with "strong indignation," stating the real issue in Hong Kong is not human rights but violence committed by anti-government protesters.
"The U.S. House of Representatives is disregarding and distorting facts by referring to serious criminal offenses, such as arson, smashing of shops and violence against police officers, as an issue of human rights and democracy," Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement. "That is a stark double standard."
The bill, he said, exposes the United States' "malicious intention to undermine Hong Kong's prosperity and stability" in order to stymie China's development.
"If the relevant act were to become law, it would not only harm China's interests and China-U.S. relations but would also seriously damage U.S. interests," he said. "China will definitely take strong countermeasures in response."
He then urged the United States to stop "meddling" in China's internal affairs, a common accusation by China against U.S. moves and comments against the ongoing political crisis in Hong Kong, a region that has been brought to a standstill as protests enter their 19th week.
What started off as demonstrations against a now-shelved controversial extradition law has since evolved into a greater -- and often violent -- anti-government, pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong following reports of police brutality. The situation has attracted international condemnation against the Chinese efforts to squelch political dissent.
The second bill the House passed Tuesday, the Protect Hong Kong Act, introduced by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., would prohibit U.S. exports of tear gas, pepper spray, grenades, guns and other crowd-control equipment to the Hong Kong police that may be used against protesters.
"Let us be clear about what is happening in Hong Kong right now -- millions of people from all walks of life, including young people, students, women, seniors, entrepreneurs, teachers, civil servants and workers -- are standing up to the most powerful authoritarian government in the world," he said in remarks prior to the vote on the bill. "The protesters have inspired the world as they risk their lives, their health, their jobs and their education to fight for the future of Hong Kong."
Amnesty International welcomed the act's passing to ban U.S. crowd-control tools from ending up in the hands of Hong Kong police.
"The United States should not be complicit in police brutality happening on the streets of [Hong Kong]," the human rights organization said on Twitter.