Hong Kong a priority for U.S. Senate Democrats, leader says

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Legislation addressing China’s actions in Hong Kong will be among the top priorities pushed by U.S. Senate Democrats when Congress returns to work after a recess next week, their leader said on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO - Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) talks to reporters on Capitol in Washington, U.S., August 1, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The statement by Senator Chuck Schumer followed similar expressions of concern by leading Senate Republicans about the situation in Hong Kong, which has been engulfed in angry and sometimes violent protests against the government for months over a controversial bill on extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China.

The mounting Senate concern contrasts with a more “hands-off” approach to Hong Kong by Republican President Donald Trump. Last month Trump suggested China should “humanely” settle the problem in Hong Kong before a trade deal is reached with Washington. Earlier Trump called the protests “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

The extradition proposal has been withdrawn by Hong Kong’s leader, but dropping it was just one of five key demands by Hong Kong protesters, who are furious about the number of arrests and perceived police brutality, and want an independent inquiry.

“It’s critical that we respond to the Chinese Communist Party’s actions against the people of Hong Kong as they exercise their right to freedom of expression and other fundamental democratic rights,” Schumer said in a statement listing five top priorities for Senate Democrats, who are in the minority, this fall.

“We must take action to demonstrate to President Xi that the United States Senate stands shoulder to shoulder with the people of Hong Kong.”

Schumer urged Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican who sets the floor agenda, to bring up a bipartisan bill that would require an annual justification of the special treatment afforded by Washington to Hong Kong, including special trade and business privileges, under the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.

The bipartisan proposal, called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Marco Rubio and Democratic Senator Ben Cardin, among others. It would also mandate that officials in China and Hong Kong who have undermined the city’s autonomy are vulnerable to sanctions, Rubio said in an opinion piece published in the Washington Post two days ago.

McConnell earlier this week said he would urge Trump to take “forceful action” if the Chinese government uses violence to put down the protests in Hong Kong. In an interview with the Hugh Hewitt radio show, McConnell also said he would support legislation to enhance the Hong Kong Policy Act, which he authored in 1992, but did not give details.

Since the city returned to Chinese rule in 1997, critics say Beijing has reneged on a commitment to maintain Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedoms under a “one country, two systems” formula.

Asked about Schumer’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told a news briefing in Beijing on Friday that any “futile plots” to undermine the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong would fail.

“We again advise relevant U.S. politicians to immediately cease any legislation related to Hong Kong, immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs through any means, and do more to promote mutual trust and cooperation between China and the United States,” Geng said.

Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Tom Brown