NEW YORK -- U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi assured Hong Kong activists Monday of American support from both sides of the aisle, saying Washington's moral authority rests on standing up for the territory regardless of commercial interests in China.
"Democracy in Hong Kong has always, always, always been bipartisan and bicameral -- House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans," Pelosi said in a virtual conference hosted by the Washington-based Hong Kong Democracy Council. As she spoke, the House was preparing to put forth a resolution condemning Beijing's continued abuses of Hong Kongers.
The virtual conference, also attended by exiled activists Nathan Law and Alex Chow, came days after the sentencings of nine high-profile democracy advocates in Hong Kong -- a demonstration of the extent of the central government's crackdown since it imposed a national security law on the once-autonomous territory last year.
Hong Kong media tycoon Jimmy Lai -- founder of Apple Daily, a newspaper highly critical of Beijing -- was sentenced to a year in prison. Martin Lee, the 82-year-old lawyer often known as Hong Kong's father of democracy for his involvement in the drafting of the Basic Law, received a suspended sentence of 11 months.
The recent trials and sentencings -- for their roles in a protest -- are "further evidence of Beijing's growing assault on the rule of law," Pelosi said Monday, echoing the sentiment of a Friday statement by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The Democratic lawmaker said Congress remains "laser-focused to hold China accountable and to support Hong Kong's efforts to maintain and grow the rule of law and freedom of speech."
China has long called for the U.S. not to meddle in its "internal affairs" under the guise of human rights and says it will take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty and security.
Pelosi, a longtime critic of Beijing and one of the American lawmakers who put a banner at Tiananmen Square in 1991 in memory of "those who died for democracy in China," said Hong Kong is a personal priority for her.
"If we do not speak up for human rights in China because of commercial interest, then we lose all moral authority to talk about human rights" anywhere, she said.
On the point of ceding human rights concerns to commercial interests, the House leader also lamented Washington's decision to allow China's accession to the World Trade Organization without "exacting any requirements" from Beijing -- "we got nothing for it," Pelosi said.
"So what do we have? We went from $5 billion in 1990 -- and they said, 'Oh, peaceful evolution, this is going to work itself out' -- to over $5 billion a week, trade deficit with China," she said. "So they were wrong, all around, all around. But the sad part of it is not the money, but the people."
Pelosi stressed the importance of Washington working with international coalitions in its support for Hong Kong.
"This was a recent focus of the White House meeting with the Quad in the region," she said. "Congress will continue work on legislation to help the administration, including related to Hong Kong, the Uyghurs and Tibet."
Sharon Hom, a legal scholar and advocate for Hong Kong democracy who spoke on an earlier panel at the Monday conference, said multilateral action on issues like Hong Kong serves a crucial messaging role.
Joint action, including statements, signal that "this is not a battle between the U.S. and China," Hom said. "There is a higher level of international human rights standards. And that's what we're talking about, and they still matter."
Under the resolution pending passage Monday, the House would encourage the Biden administration to continue implementing sanctions against relevant authorities and to provide "protection for Hong Kong residents who fear persecution," among other steps.