WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate, in a unanimous vote, passed legislation on Tuesday aimed at protecting human rights in Hong Kong amid China's crackdown on a pro-democracy protest movement that has gripped the vital financial center for months.
Following the voice vote by senators, the "Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act" now goes to the House of Representatives, which earlier approved its own version of the measure. The two chambers will have to work out their differences before any legislation can be sent to President Donald Trump for his consideration.
The Senate then passed a second bill, also unanimously, that would ban the export of certain munitions to Hong Kong police forces. It bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.
There was no immediate response from the White House, which has yet to say whether Trump would sign or veto the Hong Kong Human Rights bill. A U.S. official said recently that no decision had been made.
That official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said if the measure gets to Trump's desk there would likely be an intense debate between Trump aides worried that it could undermine trade talks with China and those who believe it is the time to take a stand against China on human rights and Hong Kong’s status.
The Chinese embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
At the start of the brief Senate debate, Republican Senator Marco Rubio said, "The people of Hong Kong see what's coming - they see the steady effort to erode the autonomy and their freedoms," as he accused Beijing of "violence and repression."
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain returned its longtime colony to Chinese rule in 1997.
Senate aides said they expected the legislation eventually would move forward as an amendment to a massive defense bill, the National Defense Authorization Act, expected to pass Congress later this year.
Under the Senate bill, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would have to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special U.S. trading consideration that bolsters its status as a world financial center. It also would provide sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong.
Demonstrators in Hong Kong have been protesting in the streets amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said following passage of the bill: "We have sent a message to President Xi (Jinping): Your suppression of freedom, whether in Hong Kong, in northwest China or in anywhere else, will not stand. You cannot be a great leader - and you cannot be a great country - when you oppose freedom, when you are so brutal to the people of Hong Kong, young and old, who are protesting."
Xinjiang, in Northwest China, is home to many mostly Muslim Uighurs, many of whom have been detained in what China says are education camps, but which the United States has called "concentration camps."
China's Foreign Ministry said this month that China had lodged "stern representations" with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States' own interests too.
It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests."
Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as "riots" that were a matter for China to deal with.
Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world's two largest economies.