By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hong Kong democracy activists urged members of the U.S. Congress on Tuesday to pass legislation to combat human rights abuses in the city, rejecting any suggestion that such a move would be inappropriate U.S. involvement in another country's affairs.
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"This is not a plea for so-called foreign interference. This is a plea for democracy," singer and activist Denise Ho told a hearing of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China.
The panel of witnesses also urged members of the commission, which includes senators and members of the House of Representatives from both parties, to take actions that might affect Hong Kong's economy.
"Beijing should not have it both ways," said Joshua Wong, secretary-general of Hong Kong's Demosisto party and leader of the "Umbrella Movement." He said Beijing was benefiting from Hong Kong's special economic status because it is a democracy, while denying "our freedom."
The former British colony has been rocked by more than three months of sometimes violent clashes, with demonstrators angry over what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in Hong Kong's affairs, despite a promise of autonomy.
Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula that guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland, including an independent legal system.
The trigger for the unrest was an extradition bill, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.
Legislation was introduced in the Senate and House earlier this year that would require an annual review of the special treatment Washington gives Hong Kong, including trade and business privileges, under the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act would also make officials in China and Hong Kong, who have undermined the city's autonomy, vulnerable to sanctions.
The legislation has not yet come up for a vote but the Senate Foreign Relations and House Foreign Affairs committees are both holding hearings this week – separate from the executive commission's session – expected to address U.S. relations with China on issues including Hong Kong.
President Donald Trump, who has been waging a tit-for-tat tariff war with China for more than a year, has suggested China should "humanely" settle the problem before a trade deal is reached.
Some industry groups worry that the legislation could threaten the delicate trade talks.
"Hopefully we will be able to pass some of this legislation to make it clear to the regime in Beijing that democracy is an important value," said Angus King, an independent senator who caucuses with Democrats.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Bernadette Baum)