Democratic senators say police crackdowns undermine US response to Hong Kong


Democratic senators expressed concerns Thursday that the use of police force against protestors across the nation would undermine U.S. efforts to fight China’s attacks on Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

Several Democratic members of the Senate Banking Committee warned during a Thursday hearing that dozens of reports of police officers using tear gas and non-lethal munitions to break up demonstrations against police brutality prevents the U.S. from credibility condemning the Chinese government and creating an international coalition to punish Beijing.

“I think everyone on this committee wants the U.S. to be a global leader, a beacon of democracy to oppressed people everywhere who longed for freedom,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), the panel’s ranking Democrat.

“The president of the U.S. is making that harder.”

Brown and several other Democrats cited a Monday evening crackdown on protests outside the White House, 15 minutes before a Washington, D.C., curfew was set to take effect. Federal law enforcement officers fired canisters of tear gas and smoke bombs into a largely peaceful crowd, spurring a stampede for safety

Soon after, Trump and several top administration officials walked through the recently cleared area so the president could pose for pictures in front of a historic church where a fire broke out the previous day.

Trump has since urged governors to take a tougher approach to dispersing protesters, deployed U.S. military forces to the streets of Washington, D.C., and threatened to invoke an 1807 law that would allow him to send troops across the country.

Reporters and protestors have also captured similar instances of police force in dozens of cities, many of which are controlled by Democratic mayors and city councillors.

“These are standards that we must hold Beijing and Hong Kong to,” said Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), “but in order for that judgment to stand, we must hold ourselves to the values of our own highest aspirations.”

Chinese government officials have seized on the partisan divides and mounted viral videos of police crackdowns with tear gas and rubber bullets to condemn the bipartisan criticism from U.S. lawmakers of Beijing’s power grab. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said Tuesday that U.S. response reveals “double standards” held by foreign nations who have spoken out against the Chinese government.

Despite the shadow of U.S. protests, the hearing largely focused on ways the U.S. government should respond to a new national security law approved by the Chinese government that would expand Beijing’s ability to prosecute and punish Hong Kongers. 

Hong Kong has operated its own legislature and criminal justice system after the city-state was  transferred from the possession of Great Britain to China in 1997. The so-called “One Country, Two Systems” framework gave Hong Kong greater civil and economic liberties than their counterparts in mainland China, but experts have warned that the new national security law will effectively end those differences.

“If China will not treat Hong Kong as autonomous, we cannot either,” said Peter Harrell, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a foreign policy think tank. 

Trump last week announced that the U.S. will no longer consider Hong Kong distinct from China and would move away from special agreements on trade, finance, and immigration struck with the city-state that did not apply to the mainland. The decision has significant implications for the Hong Kong economy that could lead to a mass departure of citizens and businesses.

Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) voiced support for offering special visas to Hong Kongers, citing U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s decision to offer a pathway to British citizenship to those fleeing from the city-state.

“I would be very interested in pursuing policy changes here in the United States that would make such an option for the people of Hong Kong to come to America,” Toomey said, arguing it would be “wonderful” for both the U.S. and the people of Hong Kong.

There was also wide agreement among senators and witnesses over ramping up financial sanctions on Chinese Communist Party officials, businesses in Hong Kong that cooperate with the Chinese government and pressuring U.S. businesses.

“[Chinese President] Xi Jinping may be very, very much seen to be a strong leader, but I wonder whether the others will go with him if their own economic interests are being hurt,” said Lee Cheuk Yan, vice chairman of the Hong Kong Labor Party, who called into the hearing from Hong Kong.

Even so, experts warned that the U.S. sanctions alone would not be enough to penalize China, urging senators to push for an international coalition that addresses Hong Kong through a broader strategy targeting China’s other human rights abuses and international provocations.

U.S. action on its own “will not have nearly as much efficacy as a multilateral approach,” Harrell said.

Tags Bob Menendez China Democracy George Floyd protests Hong Kong Hong Kong protests One country, two systems Pat Toomey police force Sherrod Brown tear gas

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