A US Congressional body has urged Washington to suspend Hong Kong’s special trading status if Chinese armed forces or police are used to quell large-scale pro-democracy protests in the city.

The United States-China Economy and Security Review Commission – an influential advisory body to the US Congress – said in its annual report on Thursday that such military intervention would cast doubt on Hong Kong’s autonomy. It also gave five non-binding recommendations on the city.

People's Liberation Army Garrison Hong Kong
Protesters passing the People’s Liberation Army Garrison in Hong Kong. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

The Commission said Congress should enact legislation to suspend Hong Kong’s special status under the 1992 United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, “in the event that China’s government deploys People’s Liberation Army or People’s Armed Police forces to engage in armed intervention in Hong Kong.”

The Act, authored by Senator Mitch McConnell, gives Hong Kong a special trade status if it remains “sufficiently autonomous.”

Status ‘under pressure’

Large-scale protests in Hong Kong, initially over a now-withdrawn extradition agreement proposal with mainland China, have entered their 24th week. The demonstrations have morphed into wider calls for democratic reform and accountability for alleged police brutality.

"November 12" Hong Kong Central protest office workers
Photo: inmediahk.net.

China has repeatedly said that it has the capability to deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in Hong Kong to curb the unrest. A Reuters report in September cited anonymous diplomats in Hong Kong as saying that Beijing had quietly doubled the number of troops in the city, headquartered at the PLA Hong Kong Garrison in Central.

“Hong Kong’s status as a separate customs territory, distinct from mainland China, is under pressure. US and Hong Kong officials cooperate on enforcing US export controls of dual-use technologies, though US officials continue to raise concerns about diversion of controlled items,” the Commission said.

“Beijing’s more assertive imposition of sovereign control over Hong Kong undermines the ‘high degree of autonomy’ that underwrites trust in the Hong Kong government’s ability to restrict sensitive US technologies from being diverted to mainland China.”

November 12 Central Hong Kong protest office workers "November 12"
Central, November 12. Photo: Studio Incendo.

The Commission urged Congress to amend the Act to encourage the US Department of State to develop a series of benchmarks for measuring the maintenance of Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” from Beijing.

It also urged Congress to enact legislation to help the US Department of Commerce extend export control measures in China to subsidiaries of Chinese companies in, or operating in, Hong Kong.

Another recommendation was for Congress to hold hearings over the efficacy of existing export controls in preventing unauthorised transhipments to China, as well as other destinations.

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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.