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S. 1838 (116th): 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 Nov 28, 2019.

Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019

This bill directs various departments to assess whether political developments in Hong Kong justify changing Hong Kong's unique treatment under U.S. law. (Hong Kong is part of China but has a largely separate legal and economic system.)

The Department of State shall report and certify annually to Congress as to whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from China to justify its unique treatment. The report shall address issues including (1) demands for universal suffrage; (2) law enforcement cooperation, including extradition requests; (3) sanctions enforcement and export controls; (4) decision-making within the Hong Kong government; (5) judicial independence; (6) civil liberties in Hong Kong, including freedom of assembly and freedom of the press; and (7) how any erosion to Hong Kong's autonomy impacts areas of U.S.-Hong Kong cooperation.

The Department of Commerce shall report annually to Congress on China's efforts to use Hong Kong to evade U.S. export controls and sanctions and the extent of such violations occurring in Hong Kong generally. The report shall also (1) identify any items that were improperly reexported from Hong Kong, (2) assess whether dual-use items subject to U.S. export laws are being transshipped through Hong Kong, and (3) assess whether such dual-use items are being used to develop various mass-surveillance and predictive-policing tools or the social-credit system proposed for deployment in China.

If the President determines that Hong Kong has proposed or enacted legislation that puts U.S. citizens at risk of extradition to mainland China or to another country that lacks defendants' rights protections, the President shall report to Congress on (1) a strategy for protecting U.S. citizens and businesses in Hong Kong, and (2) whether Hong Kong is legally competent to administer various law-enforcement agreements between Hong Kong and the United States.

The State Department may not deny work- or student-visa applications from an otherwise qualified Hong Kong resident due to a politically motivated adverse action by the Hong Kong government against the applicant. The State Department shall encourage other democratic countries to take a similar approach.

The President shall report to Congress a list of individuals responsible for committing acts that violate internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong, including the extrajudicial rendition or torture of any person in Hong Kong. The bill bars such individuals from entering the United States and imposes sanctions on them.