U.S. Senate Foreign Relations chairman hopes Hong Kong bill will move soon

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said on Wednesday he hoped that the full Senate would vote soon on legislation that would require the State Department to evaluate, at least once per year, whether Hong Kong had retained its autonomy.

The House of Representatives passed similar legislation on Tuesday, requiring certification that Hong Kong retained its autonomy from Beijing in order to keep receiving the special treatment that has allowed it to be a major financial center.

The Senate bill, the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” passed the foreign relations panel unanimously in September.

Risch told reporters he hoped the bill would move shortly. An aide said a vote could come as soon as next week.

Passage in both the House and Senate would send the legislation to the White House for President Donald Trump to sign into law or veto. White House aides declined comment on Trump’s view of the bill.

U.S. lawmakers said they wanted to take an aggressive stance on China and show support for Hong Kong following four months of unrest in the city.

The measures have garnered strong backing in the U.S. Congress, from Democrats as well as Trump’s fellow Republicans, despite delicate U.S.-China trade talks.

Hong Kong has been rocked by massive marches and at times violent protests involving teargas, petrol bombs and live rounds, over concerns Beijing is tightening its grip on the city and eroding democratic rights.

Beijing rejects the charge and accuses Western countries, like the United States and Britain, of stirring up trouble.

A spokesman for the Senate’s Republican majority leader, Mitch McConnell, did not have an update on a schedule for a Senate vote on the legislation.

Separately, a top State Department official expressed support for free expression in Hong Kong in an appearance before a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on Wednesday.

“In Hong Kong, we believe that the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly - core values that we share with the people of Hong Kong - must be vigorously protected. We continue to urge Beijing to uphold its commitments,” David Stilwell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs said.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by David Brunnstrom and Steve Holland; editing by Alistair Bell