NEW YORK/HONG KONG -- U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which passed Congress almost unanimously, while Beijing countered by vowing to take retaliatory measures.
"Today, I have signed into law S. 1838, the 'Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019,'" the president said in a White House statement.
The president explained his action in a subsequent statement, saying it was done "in the hope that Leaders and Representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences leading to long-term peace and prosperity for all."
The law requires the U.S. to impose sanctions on Chinese officials that it finds responsible for human rights violations, and also requires the State Department to annually review Hong Kong's special status, which awards it preferential trade treatment.
China's Foreign Ministry on Thursday slammed the U.S. decision as a "naked display of hegemony," and promised retaliation in a statement issued after Trump signed the bill.
The ministry said Hong Kongers enjoy an "unprecedented level of democratic rights" and can lawfully exercise their freedom, but the U.S. Senate "remains blind on facts."
"Hong Kong is China's and Hong Kong affairs are China's internal affairs that allow no foreign interference," the statement said. "We urge the U.S. side to stop its course, otherwise it will have to bear all the consequences," it added.
It also accused the U.S. of "bolstering anti-China, extremist and violent radicals," who attempt to damage Hong Kong's prosperity and stability to contain China.
Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong sent a stronger warning to "the few opposition politicians who follow Washington's lead," claiming that they should not underestimate "the ability and measures" that China has in order to safeguard its national sovereignty and interests.
Trump had been hesitant about signing the bill, as trade talks with China were in the "final throes," as he described on Tuesday.
While telling reporters that the U.S. was "with" Hong Kong's pro-democracy parties, he quickly added that he also has a good relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, signaling that the Hong Kong bill and trade talks were connected.
The president chose to sign the bill into law before the country breaks for the Thanksgiving holiday on Thursday.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government expressed "strong opposition" to the U.S. decision, saying it would send an "erroneous signal to protesters."
"[The acts] are unnecessary and unwarranted, and would harm the relations and common interests between Hong Kong and the U.S.," a government spokesperson said, claiming that some provisions are "totally unrelated" to human rights and democracy in Hong Kong.
"The [Hong Kong] government hopes the U.S. would adopt a pragmatic attitude ... and would maintain her economic and trade policy and principled positions toward Hong Kong, as well as continue to respect Hong Kong's status as a separate customs territory," the spokesperson added.
In contrast, pro-democracy activists cheered Trump's decision.
"This remarkable achievement would not be possible without the persistence and sacrifice of Hong Kong people," said Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong activist who has been involved in lobbying the U.S. Congress since five years ago.
"The bill signifies fundamental change of the U.S.'s China policy and a new stage of U.S.-Hong Kong relations," Wong added.
The U.S. Senate passed the act unanimously while the House of Representatives passed it 417-1.
Trump had the choice of signing or vetoing the bill. If he had taken no action, the bill would automatically have become law after ten days.
"I don't think China has very effective tools to retaliate against the bill at the moment," said Peng Nian, a research fellow at Hainan University Belt and Road Research Institute citing potential impact on the trade talks. The next step for China will depend on whether the U.S. will take concrete measures regarding Hong Kong under the acts, he said.
"If it's just the passage of the acts, China is not likely to take further actions beyond diplomatic condemnation," he said.