Bipartisanship in Washington is in short supply these days, but there is one roiling issue around which Democrats and Republicans are united: Hong Kong. Since demonstrations against China’s authoritarian control of the territory began this summer, top lawmakers from both parties have rallied in support of the protesters. Last week, as pro-democracy activists who barricaded themselves inside Hong Kong Polytechnic University squared off with police, Congress nearly unanimously declared official U.S. support for the moment. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed through the Senate on Tuesday by a vote of 100-0. A day later, the House of Representatives approved the measure 417-1*. The bill’s next stop, however, is the desk of President Trump — and believe it or not, something appears to have gone awry.
Asked on Friday whether he plans to support the bill, the president wouldn’t say. “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi,” he explained during an interview with Fox & Friends. “He’s a friend of mine. I’d like to see them work it out, OK?”
Trump went on to take credit for China refraining from using its military to violently quash the movement. “If it weren’t for me, Hong Kong would’ve been obliterated in 14 minutes,” he said. “[Xi] has got a million soldiers standing outside of Hong Kong that aren’t going in only because I asked him, ‘Please don’t do that, it’s going to make a tremendous negative impact on the trade deal.'”
Despite Trump’s insistence that Xi is desperate to make a trade deal, after well over a year of negotiations there has been little to no indication a deal of any real significance is on the way. If anything, China seems steadfast in its refusal to cow to Trump’s trade demands. The lack of progress hasn’t kept Trump from deferring to his “friend” Xi over the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, even as he’s claimed repeatedly that the U.S. has all the leverage in the never-ending negotiations. In June, he even told Xi over the phone that he would stay quiet on the protests as long as the two nations were discussing a trade agreement. He’s complied, even as prominent lawmakers from his own party have pressed him to take a stronger stand against China.
“I would encourage this president, who has seen Chinese behavior for what it is with a clarity that others have lacked, not to shy away from speaking out on Hong Kong himself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said on Wednesday. “The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave men and women.”
Though Trump has stayed silent, he’s had no problem blasting others for failing to issue forceful denunciations of China. Last month, after a pro-democracy tweet from Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey drew the NBA into the discourse over the protests, the president attacked Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, both vocal critics of Trump, for not taking a more strident stance against China. “They talked badly about the United States. But when they talk about China, they don’t want to say anything bad,” Trump said. “I thought it was pretty sad, actually, to see them pandering to China. It will be very interesting.”
Kerr and Popovich are basketball coaches. Trump is the president of the United States. Not only is his “pandering” to China far more explicit — on Fox & Friends he called Xi, an authoritarian whose human rights abuses are myriad, an “incredible guy” — it is also far more consequential. As McConnell explained on Wednesday, it’s important that the world hear directly from the president that the U.S. stands with the protesters. Opting not to sign the bill would be tantamount to planting his feet on the side of authoritarianism.
Should it become law, the bill would require the State Department to periodically ensure the Hong Kong government is preserving the freedoms laid out in the 1997 agreement that transferred jurisdiction over the territory from the United Kingdom to China. It would also place sanctions on Chinese officials who perpetrate human rights abuses in Hong Kong. Though signing the bill into law would do little to quell the protests currently raging in the territory, it doesn’t mean such an official show of support from the U.S. wouldn’t be significant.
“Beijing can’t compromise and the Hong Kong people will not stop easily,” Teng Biao, a former human rights lawyer in China who is now teaching at New York’s Hunter College, tells Rolling Stone. “Hong Kong is so weak compared to the Chinese government, so I think international support will play a very significant role, especially from the United States. When both houses passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act almost unanimously, that’s a big sign of support for the Hong Kong people.”
Regardless of what Trump has to say about it, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act will almost certainly become a law. Congress would easily be able to override a presidential veto of the bill. If Trump chooses to neither veto nor sign the bill, it would automatically become a law on December 3rd.
Either way, the president’s priorities have been made clear. Promoting democracy and human rights are not among them.
*The no vote is this guy, because of course it is.