Nov. 19 (UPI) -- The U.S. Senate unanimously passed a bipartisan bill Tuesday in support of the Hong Kong protesters' pro-democracy fight against China that could result in sanctions imposed against the Asian nation for eroding the semiautonomous regions' rights and freedoms.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said the passing of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 1992 sends a message to the Hong Kong protesters that the United States hears them and stands by their side.
"The passage of this bill is an important step in holding accountable those Chinese and Hong Kong government officials responsible for Hong Kong's eroding autonomy and human rights violations," Rubio, the bill's main sponsor, said in a statement following the vote.
Introduced shortly after mass protests erupted in the semiautonomous region in June, the bill will require the State Department to annually assess whether Hong Kong's level of autonomy from China justifies its special trade status under U.S. law.
The bill also mandates the president to impose sanctions against those responsible for committing human rights abuses, such as extrajudicial rendition, arbitrary detention, torture and forced confessions, against Hong Kong citizens.
It also states that visas will not be denied to Hong Kong citizens for having been arrested or detained for participating in the ongoing pro-democracy protests.
"Today, the Senate takes a momentous step forward in our nations' long history of standing up for democracy and human rights across the world," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J. "With the situation in Hong Kong nearing a breaking point, this legislation will hopefully be a shot in the arm for the millions who have been patiently waiting for the United States to once again serve as a beacon of light and solidarity in their push to defend their basic rights and autonomy."
On Wednesday, China accused the United States of attempting to stir anti-China sentiment with the bill's passing, threatening to take "strong countermeasures to defend our national sovereignty, security and development interests if the United States insists on making the wrong decisions."
"I'd like to stress once again that Hong Kong is part of China and Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang in a statement. "We urge the United States to grasp the situation, stop is wrongdoing before it's too late."
The bill comes as the Hong Kong protests stretch into their sixth month. What began as unrest against an extradition bill that would allow some suspects to be sent to mainland China to face Communist Party-controlled courts has evolved into a general pro-democracy push following accusations of police brutality.
A similar version of this bill was passed by the House of Representatives last month so both tiers of government will have to hash out one legislation before handing it off to President Donald Trump to sign into law.