Pro-democracy groups have issued an open letter urging the US to quickly impose sanctions on individuals they say have abused human rights in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was passed by the US senate last November during the height of the city’s recent protest movement and unrest. Introduced by congressman Marco Rubio and passed into law by President Donald Trump, the act directs Washington to consider new factors in its treatment of Hong Kong as separate to China in terms of its legal and economic system. It includes mechanisms to sanction government officials considered to be eroding human rights and freedoms in the autonomous city.

October 14 US rally Hong Kong Human Rights Democracy Act Chater Garden
A poster of US symbol Uncle Sam with the phrase “Fight for Freedom, stand with Hong Kong.”

Prior to the release of the first annual certification on the city’s autonomy – as required by the Act – an open letter to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was issued and signed by pro-democracy groups, veteran rally organisers, student union delegation, district councillors and over 100 civil organisations. It said that sanctions should be brought against government officials directly responsible for police brutality during the protests.

“[T]he upcoming first annual certification will be the best occasion for the U.S. government to demonstrate how the Act can be actually used to foster Hong Kong’s autonomy,” the letter read. “To demonstrate a deterrent effect for further erosion of human rights in Hong Kong, sanction procedures should be formally commenced.”

At Wednesday’s press conference, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong said that international advocacy was more than just about wearing suits and meeting US politicians: “It requires public support and involvement.”

usa us policy democracy act human rights banner november 11

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

He added that the Hong Kong government may be concerned about US action: “If there is no oppression of human rights, why do they fear sanctions? If they haven’t condoned police brutality, why do they fear the human rights act?”

Hong Kong saw months of protest and large-scale unrest which erupted last June over a now-axed proposal to allow fugitives transfers to mainland China. The movement has since morphed into sometimes violent displays of dissent against police behaviour and Beijing’s encroachment, alongside calls for democratic reform.

Joshua Wong, Fergus Leung, Sunny Cheung, Ventus Lau. Photo: Sunny Cheung’s Facebook page.

Former spokesperson of the Hong Kong Higher Institutions International Affairs Delegation Sunny Cheung raised concerns that the Hong Kong movement may be falling from the international agenda amid the coronavirus outbreak, economic strife and US elections: “It is crucial to call to draw attention to our democratic deficit and demands for universal suffrage.”

Civil Assembly Team spokesperson Ventus Lau told HKFP that the team anticipated rallies on the upcoming anniversary of the movement in June: “We hope to resume demonstrations in a physical space when the epidemic has been curbed. Large-scale gatherings arouse the most response.”

The groups also announced other follow-up plans which include calling for the US to investigate human rights violations since last June and promotional stalls to collect citizens’ signatures at various districts to pressure Washington.

US tour

Meanwhile, democrats and Executive Council members were invited to the US for a dialogue with politicians last week to discuss trade and the Human Rights Act. Both groups held press conferences on Wednesday to report on the tour, which was organised by US-based NGO World Affairs Council.

Non-official member of the Executive Council Martin Liao, who attended, said that international relations were not a zero-sum game and he opposed the Act: “There are mutual interests between China and the US,” he said. “[T]he Act is detrimental to Hong Kong.”

Martin Liao

Martin Liao. File photo: LegCo screenshot.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Horace Cheung – who also met US officials – said Congress’ previous reports that addressed the Hong Kong situation had been biased, as only democrats’ views were cited. “The presence of pro-establishment lawmakers could help the US to understand Hong Kong comprehensively,” he said.

Rachel Wong previously worked as a documentary producer and academic researcher. She has a BA in Comparative Literature and European Studies from the University of Hong Kong. She has contributed to A City Made by People and The Funambulist, and has an interest in cultural journalism and gender issues.