Protesters attend a rally themed 'Free Hong Kong, democracy now' in Hong Kong on Wednesday. File Photo by Jerome Favre/EPA-EFE
NEW YORK, June 26 (UPI) -- Activists in the United States say a Hong Kong-related bill introduced in Congress must pass quickly, if it is to help stop changes to extradition laws that put anyone in Hong Kong at the mercy of China's justice system.
Kenneth Chan, a software engineer based in the San Francisco Bay Area, told UPI he is concerned the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 might take some time to pass, while more changes unfold in the semi-autonomous city.
"We hope we can see a relatively quick turnaround, and send the appropriate message to the Hong Kong government and the Chinese government," Chan said by phone.
The U.S. legislation, introduced on June 13 by the Congressional Executive Commission on China, has received bipartisan support in Congress.
The commission's co-chairman, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had said the bill would demonstrate support for protesters, who recently petitioned at the Hong Kong consulates of G20 member states.
"As Hong Kongers take to the streets protesting amendments to the territory's extradition law, the U.S. must send a strong message that we stand with those peacefully advocating for freedom and the rule of law, and against Beijing's growing interference in Hong Kong affairs," Rubio said in statement.
Chan, who immigrated from Hong Kong to the United States in 1988 while a graduate student, said his group, the Northern California Hong Kong Club, has been organizing rallies in the Bay Area.
"We just want to do whatever we can to help with the situation there," said Chan, adding "graduate students, working professionals and stay-at-home moms" are attending the marches in California.
The United States gives Hong Kong preferential economic and trade benefits under U.S. law. A bill passed by Congress that could potentially retract those benefits could build enough pressure for Hong Kong's chief executive Carrie Lam to retract Hong Kong-China extradition plans entirely.
Even as Congress is introducing the legislation, the Trump administration has delivered what critics describe as a muted response.
When asked about the anti-extradition protests, President Donald Trump had said he is sure Beijing and Hong Kong will "be able to work it out." U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later clarified the message, and said Trump is a "vigorous defender of human rights," and the extradition issue would be raised with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit this week.
As millions of Hong Kong citizens march in favor of dropping extradition plans entirely, Americans with strong ties to the city are watching the protests with hope and fear.
Susan Blumberg-Kason, writer and co-editor of Hong Kong Noir, told UPI the adoption of a Hong Kong-China extradition bill, and reduced autonomy, could spell disaster for U.S. companies.
"A lot of law firms and banks [on the mainland] depend on Hong Kong," she said. "They don't feel comfortable having their main offices in Shanghai or Beijing because of the legal system, or the way the people do business.
"In Hong Kong there is rule of law."
Protesters have specifically targeted the extradition plans, but even as concerns mount over diminished autonomy, no activist is seeking outright independence from China.
That kind of move would be unthinkable for Hong Kong, Blumberg-Kason said.
"If there is any kind of independence movement, China would be so mad. They could just cut off everything," even water, the author said.
Since Hong Kong was returned to China in July 1997, policies have also changed to reflect the increased influence of the mainland.
The Hong Kong government eased its entry permit policy for Chinese nationals, and the number of mainland visitors has skyrocketed from the hundreds to as many as 58 million people annually, Blumberg-Kason said.
Hong Kong is being forced to cope with a changing urban landscape: more shopping malls and tourists, and less traditional buildings. People are fighting back with a heightened awareness of an independent identity, she added.
This new Hong Kong consciousness is emerging at a time when China has become more boldly authoritarian, and sees Hong Kong as part of one country.
During the height of demonstrations, Chinese state media claimed Hong Kong's activists were "in conspiracy with the West," and that they were "puppets of the United States." And with the possibility the bill could be introduced again before July 2020, the fate of Hong Kong's independence remains uncertain.
"People are worried about the next 28 years," Blumberg-Kason said, referring to the expiration in 2047 of the one-country two-systems arrangement with the mainland.
"Whatever happens with this law will predict what will happen in 30 years. I really think that."
Correction: An earlier version of this article referred to Hong Kong Noir as a work of nonfiction.