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Hong Kong protests

Joshua Wong asks US to review Hong Kong's special status

City has already lost much autonomy to Beijing, activist tells congressional panel

Joshua Wong, 22, the pro-democracy Hong Kong activist who rose to prominence leading the Umbrella Movement in 2014, testifies at a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Sept. 17.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong called on American lawmakers Tuesday to pass legislation requiring annual reviews of the special status that affords the city trade and economic privileges.

"Beijing should not have it both ways, reaping all the economic benefit of Hong Kong's standing in the world" amid the "erosion of our freedom," Wong told a hearing of the bipartisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China.

He and singer-activist Denise Ho were among the witnesses urging passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which would have the secretary of state report to Congress each year on whether Hong Kong remains "sufficiently autonomous to justify special treatment" separate from mainland China under the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992.

Asked by Republican Sen. Marco Rubio about Hong Kong's autonomy -- a prerequisite for the preferential treatment -- Wong described the city's current state as indicating the collapse of the "one country, two systems" arrangement. Student representative Sunny Cheung said that "the autonomy of Hong Kong is already bad." Rubio, a noted China hawk, co-introduced the bill.

"The U.S. government and other democracies need to hold Chinese and Hong Kong officials accountable for their failure to uphold their commitments," Rubio remarked at the hearing. "The United States and other nations have options precisely because Beijing benefits from Hong Kong's special status."

Reassessing Hong Kong's status would exert significant pressure on both its government and the mainland's but also threaten the city's standing as a global financial and trade hub.

Earlier on Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam warned in a news conference that "sanctions or punishment are not going to help lift Hong Kong out of this very difficult situation."

Hong Kong's unrest, now in its fourth month, shows little signs of abating. Lam this month announced the formal withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill that had triggered the demonstrations. But this was seen by protesters, who demand broader democratic reforms, as too little, too late.

The U.S. bill, introduced by a bipartisan group of senators days after protests broke out in June, also proposes such sanctions as asset freezes on those responsible for actions that suppress basic freedoms in Hong Kong, as well as a closer examination of Hong Kong's enforcement of U.S. export control laws on fears that American technology might be trans-shipped through the city and used to further Chinese mass surveillance programs.

Notable lawmakers have spoken out in support of Hong Kong and the Human Rights and Democracy Act, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi among the Democrats and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on the Republican side. But President Donald Trump, eyeing a trade deal with China, has yet to take a strong stance on Hong Kong beyond calling for Beijing to treat it "humanely."

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