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Trump Silent on Hong Kong as Senate Prepares Pro-Democracy Vote

Daniel Flatley and Mike Dorning
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Trump Silent on Hong Kong as Senate Prepares Pro-Democracy Vote

(Bloomberg) -- A push by Senate Republicans to support Hong Kong protesters has been met with silence from President Donald Trump, who has yet to indicate whether he would sign a bipartisan bill that risks angering China as he tries to close a preliminary trade deal.

The measure, which could pass as soon as Tuesday, was drafted with help from officials from the Treasury and the State Departments, according to a congressional aide. Yet a senior administration official on Monday cautioned that Trump’s seal of approval is the only one that matters.

“I don’t know if he does or doesn’t” support the bill, said Florida Senator Marco Rubio, the measure’s main Republican sponsor. “I expect he would. I don’t know why he wouldn’t.”

There has been remarkable bipartisan support for taking a tough stance against China’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests that continued to escalate this week. The Senate bill follows a similar measure the House passed unanimously last month, although slight differences mean both chambers still have to pass the same version before it goes to Trump for his signature.

A White House spokesman declined to comment on the Rubio bill.

QuickTake: What the U.S. Congress Is and Isn’t Doing About Hong Kong

Chinese officials have made no secret of their displeasure with what they view as U.S. interference in internal affairs. The Foreign Ministry threatened unspecified “strong countermeasures” in response to the House vote and last week renewed that warning.

The legislation is likely to drive both the U.S. and China to take a harder line in ongoing negotiations over a partial trade deal that Trump hoped would revive Chinese purchases of U.S. farm products. Talks on the “phase one” deal already have bogged down and both sides may now be more wary of making concessions to complete the agreement.

‘Brave Women and Men’

As fires burned at Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University on Monday and some demonstrators waved American flags as a plea for support, the only comment from the White House came from a senior administration official who said the U.S. condemns “the unjustified use of force” by police and “expects Beijing to honor its commitments” to protect Hong Kong’s democracy.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo said the U.S. is “gravely concerned” about rising violence and called on Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to allow an independent inquiry into “protest-related incidents.”

“We have repeatedly called for restraint from all parties in Hong Kong,” Pompeo told reporters on Monday. “Violence by any side is unacceptable.”

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Monday urged Trump to personally voice his support for the protesters. “The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave women and men,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.

The Senate bill would require the State Department to certify at least once a year whether Hong Kong should keep its special status under U.S. law. The measure would also sanction officials deemed responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s “fundamental freedoms and autonomy.”

The quickest way to send legislation to Trump’s desk after Senate passage would be for the House to vote on the Senate version, and even that probably wouldn’t happen until December when lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving recess. The two chambers could also go to conference to reconcile differences between the two bills, and then the House and the Senate would have to both pass the same version.

Special Status

Passing this legislation could weigh on global financial decisions more widely, as Hong Kong’s special trade status would be in regular peril as it comes up for annual review, according to Wendy Cutler, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and a veteran U.S. trade negotiator. Exports from Hong Kong currently are taxed at the lower tariff rate for most favored nations rather than at the tariffs charged on China’s exports.

“This will put a spotlight on that special status every year,” Cutler said, adding that if the bill passed and if China exerts stronger control in Hong Kong, “there will be enormous congressional pressure on the executive branch to revoke that status.”

If the bill becomes law, it would accelerate the consideration that Hong Kong no longer enjoys enough autonomy to merit special treatment, according to Daniel Kliman, the director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.

“Given the current trend lines, if there is a more regularized and rigorous way for the U.S. to evaluate what’s happening in Hong Kong every year, the continued erosion and loss of autonomy will be pretty inescapable and something Congress will be forced to grapple with,” Kliman said.

Cutler said the timing of the legislation could influence the final stages of trade negotiations between the U.S. and China, but it’s unlikely China would walk away from the deal altogether.

“China is going to be unhappy with the United States,” Cutler said. “They’re going to accuse the U.S. of meddling in their internal affairs. They’re going to have a harder time making concessions.”

--With assistance from Iain Marlow, Shelly Banjo and Josh Wingrove.

To contact the reporters on this story: Daniel Flatley in Washington at dflatley1@bloomberg.net;Mike Dorning in Washington at mdorning@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Joe Sobczyk at jsobczyk@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton, John Harney

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