U.S. senators push for vote on Hong Kong rights bill as violence rises

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Tuesday he wanted the Senate to pass legislation to support pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, as violence rose in the Chinese-ruled city rocked by months of unrest.

Anti-government protesters react during a standoff with riot police at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, China November 12, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu

Republican Senator Jim Risch noted that he is a co-sponsor and “strong proponent” of the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which would place Hong Kong’s special treatment by the United States under tighter scrutiny.

“We want it moved,” Risch said during a discussion on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

The Democratic-controlled House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill in mid-October, drawing accusations from Beijing that the lawmakers had “sinister intentions.”

Risch’s Foreign Relations committee approved a similar measure in September, but it has not been scheduled for a vote by the full Senate, which must pass the bill before it can be sent to President Donald Trump.

The White House, which is engaged in intense trade negotiations with China, has yet to say whether he would sign or veto it. [L2N27K1HU]

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had already lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law.

“If the legislation ultimately passes into law, it won’t only harm Chinese interests and Sino-U.S. relations, it will seriously harm the United States’ own interests. On the wrong actions of the U.S. side, China will inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Police in Hong Kong battled pro-democracy protesters at several university campuses on Tuesday in sometimes savage clashes, as parts of the city were paralyzed including Hong Kong’s financial district, which was tear-gassed for a second day running.

Those flare-ups occurred a day after police shot an unarmed protester at close range and police said “rioters” doused a man with gasoline and set him ablaze in some of the worst violence since the protests began.

Risch and fellow Republican Senator Marco Rubio are to meet on Wednesday with Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to discuss the possibility of getting floor time for a vote on the bill, aides said.

“The world needs to see that the United States will stand up and say this is wrong, we stand with the people of Hong Kong,” Risch said.

Asked of McConnell would allow a vote in the Senate, a spokesman pointed to his remarks in the Senate on Tuesday expressing concern about the violence.

“I’m eager to continue working with colleagues such as Senator Risch, Senator (Lindsey) Graham, Senator Rubio, and others toward a strong and procedurally workable solution,” McConnell said.

The legislation has 37 Republican and Democratic co-sponsors in the 100-member Senate. Backers say it is expected to pass easily if McConnell schedules a vote.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Beijing; Editing by Stephen Coates, Robert Birsel