Sanctions Bill on Hong Kong law passed by US House

A row of riot police officers stand in front of a water cannon vehicle in Hong Kong, on July 1, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - The US House of Representatives passed by unanimous consent a Bill imposing sanctions on banks that do business with Chinese officials involved in cracking down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The Bill, which is similar but not identical to a measure passed by the Senate last week, would have to be approved by the Senate before going to President Donald Trump for his signature. That likely will come on Thursday (July 2).

The measure is a response to the Chinese government enacting a strict new national security law for Hong Kong, a move many lawmakers said violated the government's promise to honour the autonomy of the former British colony. China described the security law as a "sword of Damocles" hanging over its most strident critics.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, making a special appearance at a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on Wednesday, said the new law "signals the death of the one country, two systems" model followed by China with respect to Hong Kong.

"The law is a brutal, sweeping crackdown against the people of Hong Kong, intended to destroy the freedoms they were promised," Ms Pelosi said.

The legislation passed as the Trump administration is preparing to to roll out long-delayed sanctions to punish senior Chinese officials over human-rights abuses against Muslims in Xinjiang, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The sanctions, under the 2016 Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, were delayed amid negotiations over a US-China trade deal. But tensions between the two largest economies have escalated as Mr Trump blames China for the coronavirus pandemic and members of both parties in Congress move to pressure the Beijing government over trade and human rights.

The two people cautioned that Mr Trump would still have to give a final sign-off for any sanctions to go ahead. In the past, he has delayed or frozen sanctions for fear they would jeopardise trade talks or sour his relationship with other leaders such as China's President Xi Jinping.

The House Bill, which was slightly modified from the Senate version sponsored by Senators Pat Toomey, a Pennsylvania Republican, and Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, was changed because of a procedural snag that requires all revenue-producing Bills to originate in the House.

Separately, Republicans successfully added a provision to the House Democrats' US$1.5 trillion infrastructure bill on Wednesday that would bar funds from flowing to Chinese companies associated with Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang, Democratic leaders urged the party's lawmakers to vote against Republican procedural amendments, but three dozen of the most vulnerable swing district members broke ranks to endorse it.

The House Democrats' US$1.5 trillion (S$2.1 trillion) Bill, which does not have a plan to fund the spending, has been declared dead on arrival in the Republican Senate, so the Uighur amendment is mostly symbolic. Still, it is the seventh time Ms Pelosi was not able to stop her members from defecting on a Republican motion during this Congress.

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