HONG KONG: Thousands of activists hold American flags on Thursday night at a Thanksgiving Day rally to thank the US for passing the bills.—Reuters
HONG KONG: Thousands of activists hold American flags on Thursday night at a Thanksgiving Day rally to thank the US for passing the bills.—Reuters

BEIJING: China reacted furiously on Thursday to President Donald Trump’s signing two bills aimed at supporting human rights in Hong Kong, summoning the US ambassador to protest and warning the move would undermine cooperation with Washington.

Hong Kong, a former British colony that was granted semi-autonomy when China took control in 1997, has been rocked by six months of sometimes violent pro-democracy demonstrations.

Thousands of pro-demo­cracy activists crowded a public square in downtown Hong Kong on Thursday night for a Thanksgiving Day rally to thank the United States for passing the laws and vowed to march on in their fight.

Trump’s approval of the bills was not unexpected. Neither was the reaction from Beijing, given Chinas adamant rejections of any commentary on what it considers an internal issue.

Nevertheless, the clash comes at a sensitive time and could upset already thorny trade negotiations between the two nations.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told US Ambassador Terry Branstad that the move constituted serious interference in Chinas internal affairs and a serious violation of international law, a foreign ministry statement said.

Le called it a nakedly hegemonic act. He urged the US not to implement the bills to prevent greater damage to US-China relations, the ministry said.

In a statement about the meeting, the US Embassy in Beijing said, the Chinese Communist Party must honour its promises to the Hong Kong people.

The US believes that Hong Kong’s autonomy, its adherence to the rule of law, and its commitment to protecting civil liberties are key to preserving its special status under US law, it said. The US laws, which passed both chambers of US Congress almost unanimously, mandate sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses in Hong Kong, require an annual review of Hong Kong’s favourable trade status and prohibit the export to Hong Kong police of certain non-lethal munitions.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”

Since the Hong Kong protests began in June, Beijing has responded to expressions of support for the demonstrators from the US and other countries by accusing them of orchestrating the unrest to contain China’s development. The central government has blamed foreign black hands bent on destroying the city.

HK as proxy

C.Y. Leung, a former chief executive of Hong Kong, said at a talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Hong Kong that he doubts the US or supporters of the bills ever had the interest of Hong Kong in mind.

He suggested Hong Kong was being used as a proxy for China and the legislation was a way to hit back at Beijing.

While China has repeatedly threatened unspecified countermeasures, it’s unclear exactly how it will respond.

At a daily briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to a question about how Trump’s endorsement of the legislation might affect the trade talks by saying it would undermine cooperation in important areas.

Asked on Thursday if the US legislation would affect trade talks with Wa­­sh­ington, a Chinese Com­m­erce Ministry spokesman said he had no new information to share.

Published in Dawn, November 29th, 2019