‘Strong Countermeasures’: After U.S. House Passes Bills Backing Hong Kong Protests, China Threatens Retaliation

October 16, 2019, 9:59 AM UTC

The U.S. House of Representatives passed three measures on Tuesday in support of the protests in Hong Kong, and Beijing responded on Wednesday saying it will retaliate if the bills pass into law.

The legislation includes the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA), which will put Hong Kong’s trade status with the U.S. under annual review to determine whether it is sufficiently autonomous from China to warrant special treatment, and the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, which will ban U.S. companies from exporting tear gas and other crowd-control equipment for use by Hong Kong police.

The House also passed a non-binding resolution that supports Hong Kong citizens’ right to protest and calls on the Hong Kong government to respond to protesters’ demands. In addition, the resolution condemns “the interference of the People’s Republic of China in Hong Kong’s affairs.”

“We believe that human rights are so elemental, and so in need of protection,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), a lead sponsor of the HKHRDA, in an interview with Bloomberg TV. “And that’s why the students and the young people are out in the streets in Hong Kong virtually every day.”

China expressed no such enthusiasm for the bills, however, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang saying that “China will definitely take strong countermeasures in response to the wrong decisions by the U.S. side to defend its sovereignty, security and development interests.”

U.S. interests in Hong Kong

The U.S. holds substantial economic and political interests in Hong Kong “owing largely to Hong Kong’s favorable business environment,” the non-binding House resolution notes, and more than 1,300 U.S. firms currently operate in the special administrative region.

Those businesses, many with links to the mainland, could be at risk if the bills become law and Beijing seeks to retaliate, which it also threatened to do when the U.S. blacklisted Chinese tech startups earlier this month over alleged involvement in human rights violations.

“The U.S. has important interests in Hong Kong. If the relevant act were to become law, it would not only harm China’s interests and China-U.S. relations, but would also seriously damage U.S. interests,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng said.

The Foreign Ministry statement did not specify what Chinese countermeasures would entail, but the threat comes days after the two countries agreed to a “phase one” deal to address their 15-month trade dispute, an announcement that was immediately trailed by skepticism from analysts that the deal will substantially improve the situation.

Besides the trade war, there is also an ongoing tussle between China and the U.S. on the issue of technology. In addition to the recent U.S. government blacklist on Chinese tech companies, U.S. officials have voiced anxieties that mainland China is accessing sensitive American tech through Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s reply

Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam delivered a pre-recorded policy address on Wednesday by video after being interrupted by heckling from pro-democracy lawmakers in the city’s legislative council chamber.

Lam addressed housing and transport subsidies and noted that Hong Kong slipped into a technical recession in the third quarter of the year, but made no mention of the anti-government protesters’ demands or the three pieces of Hong Kong-focused legislation that passed in the U.S. House the day before.

In a statement released before Lam’s policy address, however, the special administrative region’s government took a less threatening tone than Beijing. A Hong Kong spokesman “expressed regret” over the passage of the legislation in a Wednesday statement and said that “foreign legislatures should not interfere” in Hong Kong’s internal affairs.

At the same time, the Hong Kong government emphasized the territory’s “rigorous enforcement” of import and export controls around “strategic commodities,” a likely reference to the U.S.’s tech access fear.

“We will continue to maintain close co-operation with the U.S. and other trading partners on the matter,” the statement said.

China’s Foreign Ministry was far less sanguine, warning the U.S. to stop meddling in China’s affairs “before falling off the edge of the cliff.”

Hong Kong’s stock market was largely untouched by the bills’ passage, with the exchange’s benchmark Hang Sang index rising 0.6% on Wednesday.

Following their passage through the U.S. House via unanimous voice vote, the three bills will move on to the Senate, where a number of senators have already pledged support.

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