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Hongkongers converge on Washington to call for sanctions against police, leaders

Thousands of people take part in a protest rally in Victoria Park on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2019 in Hong Kong. (Christoph Sator/DPA/Zuma Press/TNS)
March 15, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Pro-democracy lawmakers from Hong Kong are lobbying the U.S. government to impose sanctions on senior officials in the city over police violence and human rights violations during last year’s protests.

Charles Mok, Jeremy Tam and Kenneth Leung of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) are in Washington ahead of the adminstration’s review of the city’s human rights situation under the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passed by Congress last November.

The law requires Washington to review Hong Kong’s rights situation and political freedoms, part of the reason the city is currently given separate trade treatment from the rest of China, and allows for financial and visa-related sanctions against officials judged to be responsible for rights abuses.

Mok, Tam and Leung said they have drawn up a list of high-ranking officials who could be targeted under the Act, including police chief Chris Tang and security minister John Lee.

Meanwhile, dozens of U.S.-based Hongkongers arrived in Washington to lobby U.S. members of Congress for sanctions on Tuesday.

Samuel Chu of the U.S.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council called on people to approach their Senators and Representatives in their local area.

“The main goal of today’s activity is for [the voices of] Hongkongers in the U.S. to be heard in Congress,” Chu said. “We want members of Congress to know that we’re not just lobbying; we will do anything in our power to protect Hong Kong, and we’re going to keep up the pressure.”

“This is also the first time that U.S.-based Hongkongers have come to Washington and started to learn how to do advocacy work, and about how the congressional system works,” he said.

Chu, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, is the younger son of the Rev. Chu Yiu Ming, one of the initiators of the 2014 Occupy Central democracy campaign, who later served time in jail for “inciting others to illegal assembly.”

The campaigners had met with six members of Congress by the end of Tuesday, hoping to put their case ahead of the first review of Hong Kong’s status in May.

No improvement seen

Representative Jim McGovern, chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), said the situation in Hong Kong hasn’t improved since the Act was passed.

He said the lobbying effort was just the start of pressure on China from Washington over the erosion of Hong Kong’s promised rights and freedoms.

MPs in the the U.K. on Tuesday launched an All Party Parliamentary Group on Hong Kong which will preside over an official inquiry into human rights abuses, especially by the Hong Kong police.

“Many disturbing reports have emerged in personal accounts, through social and conventional media, and there is global concern both about what is happening to Hong Kong and the damage done to international norms and standards,” the group’s co-chair Baroness Bennett said in a statement.

“This inquiry will produce a report that aims to be a resource for informing the actions of the UK and other governments, international rights bodies and campaigners.”

Later case for sanctions

Former Occupy Central student leader Joshua Wong said he isn’t hopeful of immediate sanctions against Hong Kong officials amid the ongoing coronavirus epidemic and U.S. presidential primaries, but that evidence can be compiled to make a case for sanctions in the meantime.

“Even if there are no immediate sanctions … we think we can lobby the U.S. to launch an inquiry into police violence in the next year or so,” Wong said.

Charles Mok said speculation by Hong Kong officials following joint meetings in Washington that there would be no action by the Trump administration was premature.

“Hearing that and thinking ‘Oh, we have no problem’, I think that is only the view of the pro-establishment [side],” he said in comments reported by government broadcaster RTHK.

“From the meeting we did not get that impression,” Mok said.

U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act on Nov. 27, 2019, a week after the legislation cleared the House of Representatives 417-1 in a show of support for Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests.

The new act requires the U.S. State Department to report annually to Congress whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous from China” to justify keeping the city’s distinct trading status, and whether China has “eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law,” as protected by the city’s Basic Law.

It also enables the U.S. government to freeze the assets of, and refuse visas to, officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in the city.

Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Hong Kong, waving American flags and singing the national anthem of the United States in a gesture of thanks after the Act was passed.

Violence by police

Hong Kong police have been widely criticized for excessive force, arbitrary violence and abuse of power since the anti-extradition movement broadened into a city-wide pro-democracy movement in June 2019.

Rights groups, pro-democracy politicians, and the protest movement have all demanded an independent inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, saying that the current complaints system adds up to the police investigating complaints against themselves.

Plans by Hong Kong’s leader Carrie Lam to allow the extradition of alleged criminal suspects to face trial in mainland China sparked mass street protests starting in early June that were soon followed by widespread public anger at police use of force against peaceful demonstrators, and demands for fully democratic elections.

Lam eventually withdrew the hated amendments to the city’s extradition laws in October 2019, but stopped short of meeting protesters’ demands for an amnesty for arrestees, an independent public inquiry into police violence and abuse of power, an end to the description of protesters as “rioters,” and fully democratic elections.

A January opinion poll by Reuters found that most of Hong Kong’s residents supported the five demands of the protest movement, with more than one third of respondents saying they had attended a protest.

Only 30 percent said they were opposed, compared with 59 percent of those polled who supported the movement.