US representatives have introduced a bill to ban the export of crowd control weapons to the Hong Kong police. The move comes as local experts found evidence of tear gas residue lingering in local communities for up to three weeks.

If passed, the bipartisan legislation will place restrictions on the commercial sale of “non-lethal” riot control weapons by requiring the US president to prohibit the issuance of export licenses to manufacturers 30 days after the enactment of the law.

july 28 sheung wan china extradition tear gas police
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Hong Kong police have fired more than 2,000 tear gas canisters since protests began in June over the government’s controversial plans to enable fugitive transfers to China. Over nearly 15 consecutive weeks, the large-scale demonstrations have morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent over Beijing’s encroachment and alleged police brutality. The extradition bill is set to be withdrawn was the legislative term begins, but protests are continuing.

The US bill, called the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, was put forward in the House of Representatives by Representatives Jim McGovern, Chris Smith and Ro Khanna. McGovern and Smith are both co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

“I am deeply concerned that American-made police equipment is being used to violently crack down on peaceful protesters in Hong Kong,” said McGovern. “America ought to recognise the human rights and dignity of all people, and that means we ought not to allow American companies to sell this equipment to foreign governments when we see evidence that it is being used for immoral and unjust purposes.”

On June 25, the UK suspended export licences for crowd control equipment to the city despite saying that there were no live licences for such exports at the time. British firm Chemring Defence, however, has manufactured the Rubber Bursting CS Grenade used at Hong Kong protests, sold under a five-year export licence valid from 2015.

In July, the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling on its member states to adopt “appropriate export control mechanisms” on technologies that could be used to violate human rights in Hong Kong.

In a petition to the White House, political group Demosisto urged the US government to “suspend any export application of crowd control equipment to Hong Kong to prevent further brutality against Hong Kongers.” The petition received 112,616 signatures by its end date on August 4, surpassing its 100,000 goal.

See also: Explainer: Police crowd control gear used during Hong Kong’s latest protest clashes

“America stands for democracy, human rights, and peace everywhere,” said Khanna. “If American companies are supplying the very weapons being used against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, the United States Congress is obliged to step in and act. No American company should be profiting off of anti-democratic, violent tactics abroad.”

“Peaceful demonstrations are not riots,” Smith said. “[I]t is unacceptable to use violence against non-violent protestors. Until such a time when it becomes clear that American products are not being used to repress the free people of Hong Kong, Congress must stop the flow of these exports to the government of Hong Kong.”

Jim McGovern Ro Khanna Chris Smith
Representatives Jim McGovern (left), Chris Smith (centre) and Ro Khanna (right). Photo: Wikicommons.

Hong Kong police use at least two dispersal methods for tear gas, previously known as CS gas, which can cause extreme eye, skin and respiratory pain. The first is by a hand-thrown grenade and second is rounds fired using launchers, which are known to have been manufactured by American company Nonlethal Technologies.

The bill comes as Washington prepares to consider the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, of which McGovern is a co-sponsor. If passed, the Act would impose punitive measures on those responsible for suppressing freedoms in the city and mandate the US to annually assess whether the city is autonomous enough to continue enjoying trade and economic benefits.

Tear gas lingers 

Meanwhile, around 40 Hong Kong chemical engineers released a study on Wednesday which found hazardous tear gas residue in the environment up to 21 days after it was fired.

july 28 sheung wan china extradition tear gas police
Photo: May James/HKFP.

The highest concentrations of 2-Chlorobenzylidene malononitrile — a defining irritant of tear gas — were found in areas where police had fired canisters on multiple occasions, the group said. This included Sheung Wan on July 28 and Sham Shui Po on August 14, where over 400 and 35 rounds were deployed respectively.

“We, a group of chemical engineers, urge… the [Hong Kong Police Force] to avoid firing tear gas canisters in indoor and non-open space, as the chemical residuals of the tear gas can remain in the environment for an extended period of time and challenging to be removed, and to avoid excessive use of tear gas to prevent extensive spread of the chemical residuals to areas beyond where the clashes occurred,” their statement read.

The study team collected samples from outdoor surfaces with poor natural ventilation, including a footbridge, signage and shopfront. In one case, residual chemicals were found 250 metres away from where tear gas was shot on August 25 in Tsuen Wan.

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Jennifer Creery is a Hong Kong-born British journalist, interested in minority rights and urban planning. She holds a BA in English at King's College London and has studied Mandarin at National Taiwan University.