HONG KONG — The crisis over Hong Kong’s future took center stage in worsening U.S.-China relations Thursday, as protesters called on President Trump to sign into law a bill intended to protect human rights in the territory over Beijing’s increasingly strident objections.
The prospect of a diplomatic showdown between the United States and China over Hong Kong pushed Asian stock markets lower, after Congress passed a bill that paves the way for sanctions against officials involved in the crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
China’s most senior diplomat, Wang Yi, said the U.S. actions severely damage bilateral relations and do not help world peace and stability, while state media urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in China’s internal affairs.
“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official newspaper, said in a front-page editorial.
But on the streets of Hong Kong, Washington’s support was welcomed — even if it was not seen as a game changer. Protesters are regrouping after a tough week in which more than 1,000 were apprehended and hundreds injured in a failed attempt to turn the city’s universities into fortified bases.
“Sign the bill, protect Hong Kong!” a group of more than 100 protesters chanted at an upscale shopping mall. “Five demands, not one less!” they shouted, referring to their list of grievances against the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities.
In Washington, the Hong Kong bill brought rare bipartisan cooperation even as the impeachment inquiry had lawmakers deeply divided.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) celebrated the bill’s passage as “a day of mutual respect for democratic freedoms, the courage of the young people there to speak out, and also day of great bipartisanship in the House of Representative and the United States Senate.”
“It hardly gets any better than that,” she added.
After the ceremony, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.) of the Foreign Affairs committee told reporters that he believed Trump would sign the bill. Not to do so “would fly in the face of the truth that this is happening in Hong Kong and we need to support the people of Hong Kong,” he said.
The White House declined to comment on the bill, but it has near-unanimous backing as Congress appears determined to send a message to the Chinese government.