US politicians have warned that the special status Hong Kong enjoys in US law may be axed following an increase in “political prosecutions” of pro-democracy protesters.

House Representative Chris Smith and Senator Marco Rubio, both of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, issued a strong statement after the Department of Justice successfully appealed for a harsher sentence for protesters who received community service orders and suspended sentences in previous protests.

This week, 13 activists who protested against a controversial development plan were jailed for eight to 13 months, whilst activists Joshua Wong, Nathan Law and Alex Chow were jailed for between six and eight months.

Marco Rubio
Marco Rubio. Photo: Gage Skidmore, via Flickr.

Representative Smith said the sentences were “another severe blow to Hong Kong’s reputation as a city governed by the rule of law.”

“Beijing is actively trying to decimate the pro-democracy movement using Hong Kong’s courts and prosecutors to further its political agenda. How can one fully trust a legal system that nullifies legitimate Legislative Council elections and resentences Umbrella Movement leaders who have already served their terms?” said Smith.

“The Hong Kong government may say these are ‘deterrent sentences,’ but to the rest of the world it looks like political prosecutions intended to curtail freedom of expression. The United States must show unwavering support for freedom and the rule of law, but if the Chinese government will no longer abide by the promises made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, U.S. policy must adapt and reassess whether Hong Kong warrants special status under U.S. law.”

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US representative Christopher Smith met with Joshua Wong in Washington DC in 2017. Photo: Jeffrey Ngo.

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs previously claimed the Sino-British Joint Declaration is “a historical document and no longer has any practical significance.”

Under the existing United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, the US supports democratisation and human rights for Hong Kong. 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.”

Rubio said Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow and other Umbrella Movement protesters “are pro-democracy champions worthy of admiration, not criminals deserving jail time.”

“The political prosecutions and resentencing of these young people is shameful and further evidence that Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy is precipitously eroding,” he said.

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Marco Rubio and Joshua Wong. File Photo: Jeffrey Ngo.

“Beijing’s heavy hand is on display for all to see as they attempt to crush the next generation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and undermine the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangements. U.S. policy must reflect these realities, which is why I am pressing for swift Senate passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.”

The Act, if passed, will establish heavy punishments for government officials in Hong Kong or mainland China who may be responsible for suppressing basic freedoms in the city.

A bipartisan group of five US House representatives also introduced in June a resolution calling on China to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy, which they said it is the US’ national interest.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

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.