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H.R. 3289: Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019

The legislation recently unanimously passed both a Senate and House committee.


Millions of Hong Kong citizens have peacefully protested and demonstrated since June, in marches and rallies that have grabbed the world’s attention. Held at first in response to a specific legislative bill proposing easier extraditions, the protests later metastasized into a more all-encompassing demand for governmental reforms.

Hong Kong is a special “administrative region,” formally part of the United Kingdom for about 150 years, but now part of China since a 1997 changeover. Although the changeover’s terms originally required China to pledge a generally hands-off approach to Hong Kong, certainly much more so than the heavy governmental control China applies to the rest of their nation, China has gradually ramped up control since 1997.

This summer’s proposed bill in Hong Kong about extraditions — which would make it easier for their citizens accused of a crime to be sent away, including most notably to mainland China where dissident citizens can be “disappeared” — was seen by many in Hong Kong as the last straw.

In the U.S., the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 has governed U.S. policy towards the region. Essentially, it maintains all treaties and commitments to Hong Kong regardless of China’s official national agreement or participation. China, of course, sharply criticized the legislation at the time of its enactment.

What the legislation does

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would require the State Department annually re-certify Hong Kong’s autonomous nature, in order for the so-called “special treatment” the U.S. affords Hong Kong to continue.

It would also mandate the U.S. government identify any specific people involved in abductions of Hong Kong protesters or extraditions of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China, and freeze any of their U.S.-based assets and deny them physical entry into the U.S.

Lastly, it would clarify under federal law that nobody should be denied a visa to the U.S. on the basis of participating in Hong Kong protests.

The House version was introduced on May 13 as bill number H.R. 3289, by Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ4). The Senate version was introduced the same day as bill number S. 1838, by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL).

What supporters say

Supporters argue the legislation stands on the side of human rights, democracy, and personal freedom over autocracy, government control, and authoritarianism.

“Democracy and freedom are under assault in Hong Kong, and it is critical for the Congress to reaffirm the United States’ commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy, to the human rights guaranteed the people of Hong Kong, and to those peacefully protesting the Chinese government’s increasingly rough oversight of Hong Kong,” Rep. Smith said in a press release.

“It is in everyone’s interest that Hong Kong remain a free and prosperous bridge between China and the world,” Rep. Smith continued. “But if Beijing intends to force Hong Kong into becoming just another mainland Chinese city under authoritarian rule, we must reevaluate whether Hong Kong warrants the special status granted under U.S. law.”

“As over one million Hong Kongers take to the streets protesting amendments to the territory’s extradition law, the U.S. must send a strong message that we stand with those peacefully advocating for freedom and the rule of law and against Beijing’s growing interference in Hong Kong affairs,” Sen. Rubio said in the same press release.

“I am proud to re-introduce legislation that places the U.S. firmly on the side of human rights and democracy and against those who would erode the freedoms and autonomy guaranteed to the people of Hong Kong, freedoms that have made the city a prosperous global commercial hub governed by the rule of law.”

What opponents say

The legislation has virtually no American opponents, with political opposites Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell both supporting the legislation. However, as one might imagine, mainland China is particularly opposed to the legislation, claiming it violates international sovereignty and exposes hypocrisies of U.S. failures on human rights.

“Hong Kong is at a critical moment to reclaim law and order. However, it seems that some US lawmakers are trying to stand in the way,” China’s official Xinhua News Agency wrote.

“By smearing China to score cheap political gains as usual, these politicians are turning a blind eye to the undeniable facts that China has in the past 22 years unswervingly upheld its commitments to the Basic Law with an effective implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong,” the article continued.

“According to the Canadian Fraser Institute’s latest Human Freedom Index, Hong Kong ranks third in the world, far better than that of the United States, which ranks 17th.”

Odds of passage

The House version has attracted 45 bipartisan cosponsors: 24 Democrats and 21 Republicans. The Senate version has attracted 22 bipartisan cosponsors: 12 Democrats or Democratic-affiliated independents and 10 Republicans.

On September 25, the legislation passed unanimously in both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

In 2017, a previous House version only attracted one Democratic cosponsor and never received a vote. That same year, a Senate version attracted two bipartisan cosponsors — one Democrat, one Republican — but never received a vote.

However, the tensions in Hong Kong issue has grown considerably in scope and publicity since then, especially since about June 2019 amid widespread protests. Given the legislation’s bipartisan cosponsorship, passage seems reasonably likely.

Last updated Oct 10, 2019. View all GovTrack summaries.

The summary below was written by the Congressional Research Service, which is a nonpartisan division of the Library of Congress, and was published on Oct 15, 2019.

Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019

This bill addresses Hong Kong's status under U.S. law and imposes sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong. (Hong Kong is part of China but has a largely separate legal and economic system.)

The Department of State shall certify annually to Congress as to whether Hong Kong warrants its unique treatment under various treaties, agreements, and U.S. law. The analysis shall evaluate whether Hong Kong is upholding the rule of law and protecting rights enumerated in various documents, including (1) the agreement between the United Kingdom and China regarding Hong Kong's return to China, and (2) the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The bill extends existing annual reporting requirements on matters of U.S. interest in Hong Kong through 2027 and expands such reports to include assessments of (1) limits to Hong Kong's autonomy, either self-imposed or due to China's actions; and (2) whether rescission of Hong Kong's special treatment would further erode Hong Kong's autonomy.

The President shall annually report to Congress on Hong Kong's enforcement of U.S. export controls, including whether items of U.S. origin have been used for mass surveillance in China and whether Hong Kong has been used to evade sanctions on North Korea or Iran.

The State Department shall notify Congress if any proposed or enacted law in Hong Kong negatively impacts U.S. interests, including by putting U.S. citizens at risk of rendition to China.

The President shall impose property and visa-blocking sanctions on foreign persons responsible for gross human rights violations in Hong Kong.