The US Senate has unanimously adopted legislation that aims to protect civil rights in Hong Kong and will punish those deemed responsible for suppressing freedoms in the semi-autonomous city. The legislation will now proceed to the next stages of approval before it is presented to President Donald Trump, who may pass it into law or veto the bill.

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A banner at a protest on November 11. Photo: Benjamin Yuen/United Social Press.

“Today, the United States Senate sent a clear message to Hong Kongers fighting for their long-cherished freedoms: we hear you, we continue to stand with you, and we will not stand idly by as Beijing undermines your autonomy,” US Senator Marco Rubio, who proposed the bill, said on Tuesday evening in Washington.

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The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will sanction officials considered to be harming human rights and freedom in Hong Kong. It will also require the US Secretary of State to certify whether Hong Kong continues to warrant special treatment after giving consideration to the degree of autonomy of the Hong Kong government in making decisions relating to human rights, law enforcement and other aspects.

The city is currently treated separately from China in terms of trade.

The act has now received bipartisan support in both the Senate and the US House of Representatives, which passed the bill unanimously last month. It will now travel to a committee consisting of Senate and House members for scrutiny before the bill is sent to both chambers for approval. Trump will then have ten days to sign it into law or veto the legislation.

“The U.S. Senate took a stand today in support of the Hong Kong people,” Jim Risch, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said. “Passing this legislation is an important step forward in holding the Chinese Communist Party accountable for its erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its repression of fundamental freedoms.”

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Senators also voiced support for Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters in their speeches. “People are being shot. Universities are being burned,” Democratic Senator Bob Menendez said. “This is not the Hong Kong that anyone wants to see.

“We are standing with them [people of Hong Kong],” Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn said. “It’s important to know that China has really earned its place as the world’s most notorious human rights violator.”

While the bill has been welcomed by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, the pro-Beijing camp has criticised its passage by the House of Representatives. It accused the political body of interfering in Hong Kong’s internal affairs and promoting the political interests of their “proxies” in the city.

The Hong Kong government said in a statement on Wednesday that foreign legislatures should not interfere in the domestic affairs of the territory. It called the bill “unnecessary and unwanted,” warning that it would harm Hong Kong-US relations.

Large-scale protests in Hong Kong, initially over a now-withdrawn extradition agreement proposal with mainland China, have entered their 25th week. The demonstrations have morphed into wider calls for democratic reform and accountability for alleged police brutality.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.