WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation Wednesday aimed at supporting protesters in Hong Kong, ignoring warnings from Beijing that the measure would be met with “strong countermeasures” during a standoff over trade.
The bill, which won near unanimous approval in Congress, would require officials to annually re-consider special treatment Hong Kong receives from the U.S., including trade rules that have helped elevate the city to a global financial power.
Lawmakers in both parties have sought to signal support for the protesters, who for months have taken to the streets to demonstrate against what they view as China’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy. Pro-democracy candidates won major gains in Hong Kong elections over the weekend, a rebuke to Beijing’s response to the protests.
“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China, and the people of Hong Kong,” Trump said in a statement. “They are being enacted in the hope that leaders and representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long term peace and prosperity for all.”
But Trump also appeared to balk at portions of the bill, adding a signing statement cautioning that “certain provisions” of the act “would interfere with the exercise of the president’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States.” The White House did not respond to questions about which provisions were at issue.
Trump has been ambiguous when asked about the Hong Kong protesters, a topic that complicates his effort to reach an agreement to end his trade war with Beijing. Trump told reporters on Oct. 7 that if “anything happened bad” that would be “very bad for the negotiation.” He said he hoped “they can work out something that’s amicable.”
China had previously threatened to retaliate if Trump signed the measure.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said recently that the legislation undermines U.S.-China relations.
“We urge the U.S. to grasp the situation, stop its wrongdoing before it’s too late,” he said. “If the U.S. continues to make the wrong moves, China will be taking strong countermeasures for sure.”
Lawmakers from both parties applauded Trump’s decision to sign the bill, which had not been a sure bet. Trump initially demurred when asked if he would sign it.
“Know this, Chairman Xi: Americans despise tyrants and stand in solidarity with Hong Kong,” said Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb. “The whole world has seen both the courage of Hong Kongers and the brutality of your Chinese Communist Party.”
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said the law “ensures the United States finally sends a clear and unequivocal message to the people of Hong Kong: We are with you.”
Britain controlled Hong Kong until 1997, when it ceded authority to China to oversee the city as a special administrative region. At the time, communist Beijing promised Hong Kong would enjoy a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years. Washington afforded the city special treatment, setting up different rules than for mainland China. For instance, the trade barriers Trump has imposed on China have not applied to Hong Kong.