The House of Representatives on Wednesday night passed a bill to impose sanctions on entities that help violate Hong Kong's autonomy and financial institutions that do business with them, a response to the passage of a "national security" law that tightened Beijing's grip on Hong Kong — which has been semi-autonomous from China since 1997.
The Chinese law, passed earlier this week, says that those who destroy government facilities and utilities would be considered subversive. Damaging public transportation facilities and arson would constitute acts of terrorism. Any person taking part in secessionist activities, whether organizing or participating, would violate the law regardless of whether violence is used.
It comes after a full year of pro-democracy protests in the former British territory that was handed over to China 23 years ago on the condition that it would keep a high degree of autonomy from mainland China and a British-style rule of law — a "one country, two systems" framework. China has slowly encroached on Hong Kong's autonomy, leading U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo early this year to declare that it is "no longer autonomous."
"The United States Congress on bipartisan basis has long been united in our mission to hold Beijing accountable for its brutal crackdown against those peacefully demanding their rights and freedoms, including in Hong Kong," House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said of the bill's passage Wednesday.
She added: "Today’s action is an urgently needed response to the cowardly Chinese government’s passage of its so-called ‘national security’ law, which threatens the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ promised exactly 23 years ago today. All freedom-loving people must condemn this horrific law, which is purpose-built to dismantle democratic freedoms in Hong Kong."
Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement, "As Americans we must do everything we can to support the freedom loving Hong Kongers fighting against the CCP’s tyranny. The US is determined to impose consequences."
And on the heels of the House legislation Wednesday, the State Department Thursday morning released a letter to American businesses warning of "reputational, economic and legal" problems they could see by continuing to do business with companies in the Xinjiang region of China. The Chinese government has run internment and forced labor camps there, which hold an estimated 1 million Uighur Muslims, according to a report by The Washington Post.
The Chinese government has also required forced sterilization of Uighurs in what the State Department's letter called "some of the most serious acts involving mass human rights abuses since the Second World War... The aim of the internment has been to force members of these minority groups to renounce their ethnic identity and religion, and to embrace the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party."
Pompeo on Tuesday slammed the imposition of the repressive Hong Kong law.
"The Chinese Communist Party’s decision to impose draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong destroys the territory’s autonomy and one of China’s greatest achievements," he said. "The United States will not stand idly by while China swallows Hong Kong into its authoritarian maw. Last week, we imposed visa restrictions on [Chinese Communist Party] officials responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy. We are ending defense and dual-use technology exports to the territory. Per President Trump’s instruction, we will eliminate policy exemptions that give Hong Kong different and special treatment, with few exceptions."
The House legislation would take those actions by the State Department a step further. A Congressional Research Service summary of the legislation says it provides for sanctions against "foreign individuals and entities that materially contributed to China's failure" to respect Hong Kong's autonomy and "foreign financial institutions that knowingly conducted a significant transaction with such identified individuals and entities."
The sanctions against financial institutions would be mandatory and the sanctions against "entities and individuals" would be at the discretion of the president, unless they are named on State Department reports as helping violate Hong Kong's autonomy for two consecutive years.
The Senate passed a similar bill earlier this month. The sponsors of that bill, Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., and Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said they plan on getting the Senate to match its legislation with the House's to send it to the president's desk "as soon as" Thursday.
"Tens of thousands of Hongkongers are in the streets protesting and refusing to surrender their basic rights to the Chinese Communist Party," Toomey and Van Hollen said. "They are doing so even as CCP collaborators harshly crackdown on free speech and the right to assemble. Our bipartisan Hong Kong Autonomy Act will punish those responsible for these crackdowns and other CCP aggression with strong sanctions."
Fox News' Edmund DeMarche and Caitlin McFall, Fox Business' Blake Burman and The Associated Press contributed to this report.