Hong Kong bill passes US Senate as lawmakers aim to crack down on human rights violations

The U.S. Senate on Tuesday unanimously passed a bill meant to protect human rights in Hong Kong as a recent escalation in violence rocks the now five-month protest against Chinese control over the semi-autonomous city.

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The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was first introduced by Florida’s GOP Sen. Marco Rubio in June, gained support in recent days as police tightened their siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, where hundreds of young protesters remained holed up trying to evade arrest.

The university turned into a battleground as protesters, who used gasoline bombs and even bows and arrows, battled police backed by armored cars and water cannons. Hundreds were arrested before the six-day standoff came to a close.

“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,” Rubio said. “The passage of this bill is an important step in holding accountable those Chinese and Hong Kong government officials responsible for Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy and human rights violations.”

China, which took control of the former British colony in 1997 and promised to let it retain its autonomy, has hardened its position and refused to make concessions to protesters. The movement began as a protest against an extradition bill, which would have allowed fugitives to be transported back to mainland China for trial before the Communist Party. It has steadily intensified into calls for greater autonomy and American-style democratic elections.

“With the situation in Hong Kong nearing a breaking point, this legislation will hopefully be a shot in the arm for the millions who have been patiently waiting for the United States to once again serve as a beacon of light and solidarity in their push to defend their basic rights and autonomy," New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who also sponsored the bill, said in a statement. "Hong Kong authorities must de-escalate this situation by taking the appropriate steps to address the democratic desires of the people of Hong Kong -- including forming an independent commission to investigate police violence."

The proposed legislation would require the U.S. Secretary of State to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy in order to receive special treatment from the U.S. regarding trade, which currently allows the city to thrive as a world financial hub, Reuters reported. The bill also says President Trump would need to impose sanctions against foreign officials who commit human rights violations against protesters. The executive branch would also develop a strategy on how to protect American citizens in Hong Kong from rendition or abduction to China, and report annually to Congress on violations of U.S. export controls laws and United Nations sanctions in Hong Kong.

Also on Tuesday, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Protect Hong Kong Act, which would prohibit American companies from exporting crowd control munitions to Hong Kong police, the South China Morning Post also reported.

Beijing condemned the passage of the legislation in a statement slamming the U.S. for challenging China’s sovereignty over its territory, Reuters reported.

“This act neglects facts and truth, applies double standards and blatantly interferes in Hong Kong affairs and China’s other internal affairs,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in a statement. “It is in serious violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations. China condemns and firmly opposes it.”

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The House of Representatives already passed a similar version of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last month. Both chambers must settle their differences between the bills in committee before the legislation heads to Trump’s desk for approval.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.