A bipartisan group of US senators have reintroduced a proposal that will establish heavy punishments for government officials in Hong Kong or mainland China who are responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in the city.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act is sponsored by Republican senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, chair and commissioner of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC) respectively, and Democratic senator Ben Cardin, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The punitive measures include freezing the assets of people responsible for the surveillance, abduction, detention, or forced confessions of Hong Kong booksellers and denying them entry to the US.

Cotton Cardin Rubio
Tom Cotton, Ben Cardin, Marco Rubio. Photo:Wikimedia Commons.

The bill was previously updated in November last year to reflect the latest political developments in Hong Kong. It was tabled by Rubio and Cotton at the end of the last legislative session, after a meeting with student leader Joshua Wong.

Rubio said Beijing consistently undermined the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and infringed the democratic freedoms of Hong Kong people.

“The importance of this legislation was further impressed upon me late last year after meeting with pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, who became the face of the Umbrella Movement for many in late 2014,” he said.

“Joshua is an impressive and thoughtful young man who, along with his fellow activists, represents the future of Hong Kong — a future that must not go the way of Beijing’s failed authoritarianism and one-party rule. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act reaffirms America’s support of the people of Hong Kong as they seek to oppose Beijing’s efforts to erode democratic institutions.”

Cardin, who newly joined in tabling the legislation, said the spirit of democracy and freedom were under threat today in Hong Kong.

“[I]t is critical that the Senate reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy, to Hong Kong’s vibrant civil society and to the basic human rights of the people of Hong Kong,” said Cardin. “America’s strength has been and will always be in our values.”

Joshua Wong told HKFP that he believed it was the right time for the international community to review Hong Kong’s situation and make policy changes at the 20th anniversary of the handover.

1997 Handover
The 1997 handover. Photo: Stand News.

“I believe that even though the Democratic Party and Republican Party have different views on policies, it should be both parties’ common principle to be citizens who embrace universal values and support Hong Kong’s democratic movement – I welcome them to pass the Act as soon as possible,” he said.

Wong added that he was hoping to join future hearings of the CECC and travel to other countries to bring up concerns about damage to the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and young people’s concerns about the future after 2047, when China’s promise guaranteeing Hong Kong’s autonomy expires.

“I hope after the US Congress sets the precedent, international political figures and civil society can continue paying attention to Hong Kong issues,” he said.

The think tank Freedom House will also formally endorse the bill.

Causeway Bay Books.
Causeway Bay Books. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.


Under the existing United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the US supports democratisation and human rights for Hong Kong, and the country’s special policy towards Hong Kong – which is different from its policy towards China – is only justified if Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous.”

The new bill requires the Secretary of State to certify that Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous before any new special arrangements will be allowed.

The Secretary of State will also be required to issue an annual report on Hong Kong’s condition, such as developments related to democratic institutions.

The US president will be required to identify persons responsible for the surveillance, abduction, detention, or forced confessions of certain booksellers and journalists in Hong Kong and other actions suppressing basic freedoms. It asks the president to freeze their US-based assets and deny them entry to the US.

The act would also make clear that visa applicants who resided in Hong Kong in 2014 – the year of the pro-democracy Occupy protests – should not be denied visas on the basis of the applicant’s arrest, detention or other adverse government action taken as a result of their participation in non-violent protest activities related to Hong Kong’s electoral process.

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.