People assemble for a gathering of thanks at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong on November 28 2019, after US President Donald Trump signed legislation requiring an annual review of freedoms in Hong Kong. Picture: AFP/ANTHONY WALLACE
People assemble for a gathering of thanks at Edinburgh Place in Hong Kong on November 28 2019, after US President Donald Trump signed legislation requiring an annual review of freedoms in Hong Kong. Picture: AFP/ANTHONY WALLACE

Washington — US President Donald Trump has signed a bill into law that expresses US support for Hong Kong protesters, a move that will strain relations with China and further complicate the president’s effort to wind down his trade war with Beijing.

Trump signed the measure on Wednesday, the White House said in a statement. Even so, he signaled concerns with unspecified portions of the new law, saying they risk interfering with his constitutional authority to carry out US foreign policy.

The legislation in support of the protesters requires annual reviews of Hong Kong’s special trade status under US law — and sanctions against any officials deemed responsible for human rights abuses or undermining the city’s autonomy.

“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi [Jinping], China, and the people of Hong Kong,” the president said in a statement on Wednesday. “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.”

The House cleared the bill 417-1 on November 20 after the Senate passed it without opposition — veto-proof majorities that left Trump with little choice but to acquiesce.

Asked if Trump’s signing the statement was aimed at the sanctions provisions, a senior administration official said the statement was drafted with all of the bill’s provisions in mind.

Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, said the law, S 1838, would give the US “meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs”.

“In an overwhelming display of bipartisan unity, Congress passed our Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and I applaud president Trump for signing this critical legislation into law,” Rubio said in a statement. “I look forward to continuing to work with the administration to implement this law.”

Trump also signed a second Hong Kong bill, S 2710, that bans the export of crowd-control items such as tear gas and rubber bullets to the city’s police.

While many members of Congress in both parties had voiced strong support for the protesters, who are demanding greater autonomy for the city, Trump stayed largely silent, even as the demonstrations have been met by rising police violence.

Last week, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, called on the president to speak out, saying that “the world should hear from him directly that the US stands with” the protesters.

China’s threatening response

China’s foreign ministry had urged Trump to prevent the legislation from becoming law, warning the US not to underestimate China’s determination to defend its “sovereignty, security and development interests”.

“If the US insists on going down this wrong path, China will take strong countermeasures,” ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said at a briefing in Beijing on Thursday. Chinese vice-foreign minister Zheng Zeguang summoned the US ambassador Terry Branstad on Monday to express “strong opposition” to what the country’s government considers US interference in the protests, including the legislation, according to a statement.

The new law comes just as Washington and Beijing have shown signs of working toward what the White House calls a phase-one deal to ease the trade war. Trump would like the agreement finished to ease economic uncertainty for his re-election campaign in 2020, and he has floated the possibility of signing the deal in a farm state as an acknowledgment of the constituency that’s borne the brunt of retaliatory Chinese tariffs.

US and Chinese trade negotiators will continue communicating closely and work towards a phase-one deal, ministry of commerce spokesperson Gao Feng said at a briefing in Beijing on Thursday.

Before a speech at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Beijing last week, China’s vice-premier Liu He — the country’s chief trade negotiator — said that he was “cautiously optimistic” about reaching the phase-one deal, according to people who attended a dinner and asked not to be identified.

Bloomberg