12/05/2019, 09.12
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US law on Hong Kong: symbolic but with a disruptive effect

by Emanuele Scimia

The new US legislation is aimed at safeguarding Hong Kong’s autonomy, but many believe the Trump administration will not put the territory’s special trade status at risk. Hong Kong is the eighth largest market for US exports according to the International Monetary Fund, and 1,344 US companies operate in the autonomous territory. Nonetheless, the Act is a blow to Xi Jinping and the CCP, according to a former top Pentagon official.

Washington (AsiaNews) – US President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law on November 27, drawing the ire of the Chinese government, which warned Washington not to interfere in the city’s (and so China’s) domestic affairs.

The piece of legislation comes in response to Hong Kong and Beijing authorities’ handling of anti-government and pro-democracy protests that have plunged the former British colony into a far-reaching political and social crisis.

China must comply with the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which ensured Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy for 50 years after its return to Chinese rule in 1997. Under the 1992 US-Hong Kong Policy Act, the city is treated as a separate entity from mainland China, especially as far as trade, customs, investment and technology transfers are concerned.

The  Human Rights and Democracy Act requires the US Department of State to annually certify whether Hong Kong retains enough autonomy under the “one country, two systems” scheme to justify the special relationship. It also provides for the imposition of penalties on officials who commit human rights abuses in the city.

Trump also greenlighted the Protect Hong Kong Act, which bans the export to the Hong Kong police of US-manufactured crowd control equipment such as rubber bullets, tear gas and stun guns.

However, the two bills have effects that may go beyond just safeguarding Hong Kong’s political future and way of life, and part of this has to do with negotiations to put an end to the ongoing trade war between China and the United States.

“Given the intensity of congressional scepticism about (and downright hostility to) Beijing’s behaviour along the length of the western Pacific, the Trump administration has yielded to reality,” James Clad, a former US deputy assistant secretary of defence for Asia-Pacific Affairs under the George W Bush administration, told AsiaNews.

“This is one of those moments when each side, and the multiple contenders within the policy spectrum on each side, can press the ‘pause’ button, and close a trade deal to reassure markets and those within the CCP [Chinese Communist Party] questioning Xi Jinping’s leadership,” said Clad, who is a senior fellow for Asia at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC.

Some say the Act is mostly symbolic and Trump is unlikely to terminate Hong Kong’s special status, as it would ultimately damage US economic interests. Hong Kong is America’s eighth-largest export market according to the International Monetary Fund, and 1,344 US companies operate in the autonomous territory. More importantly, the city remains a business gateway to China.

Clad believes the signed legislation, symbolic though it is, still packs a punch at the present moment – fortified all the more by the extraordinary district elections result in Hong Kong on November 24. “The CCP is in a pickle, yet it could still decide to crack the whip in defence of the most important maxim of all: the absolute supremacy of the Party,” he insisted.

To the former top Pentagon official, the short and long term consequences of this move would be dire, not least in “driving Northeast Asia and beyond that, the entire Western Pacific, closer to the US.”



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