In-Depth: Rep. James McGovern (D-MA), Co-Chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, introduced this bipartisan bill to prohibit commercial exports of certain nonlethal crowd control items, defense articles, and service to the Hong Kong Police Force:
“I am deeply concerned that American-made police equipment is being used to violently crack down on peaceful protesters in Hong Kong. America ought to recognize the human rights and dignity of all people, and that means we ought not to allow American companies to sell this equipment to foreign governments when we see evidence that it is being used for immoral and unjust purposes.”
Original cosponsor Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), the other co-chair of the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, adds:
“Hong Kong police are targeting their own citizens who are guilty of nothing more than peacefully protesting government threats to their freedoms and liberties. Peaceful demonstrations are not riots; it is unacceptable to use violence against non-violent protestors. Until such a time when it becomes clear that American products are not being used to repress the free people of Hong Kong, Congress must stop the flow of these exports to the government of Hong Kong. This legislation does that.”
Before introducing this bill, Reps. McGovern and Smith sent a letter to the Trump administration calling for the suspension of future sales of munitions and crowd control equipment to the Hong Kong Police Force. In their letter, they also called for increased scrutiny of defense sales to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s government.
Joshua Wong, secretary-general of Hong Kong’s Demosisto party and one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong who has also been an active participant in the current Hong Kong protests, testified in favor of this legislation before the Congressional Executive Commission on China. Wong claimed that this legislation and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act have “broad support” in Hong Kong. He called on Congress to stand “on the side of Hong Kongers, the side of human rights and decency” and added:
“The police's excessive force today is clear. Their increasingly liberal use of pepper spray, pepper balls, rubber bullets, sponge bullets, bean bag rounds, and water cannons -- almost all of which are imported from Western democracies -- are no less troubling.”
In a September 26, 2019 op-ed in The Hill, Brian Dooley, senior advisor at Human Rights First, a nonprofit, nonpartisan international human rights organization, called on Congress to pass this bill “in a strong show of solidarity” with Hong Kong protestors. He argued that this together, this bill and the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act are “a rare chance [for legislators] to vote their conscience, stand with the good guys and get on the right side of history.”
The Chinese government has accused American politicians criticizing its actions in Hong Kong of undermining China. Geng Shuang, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, says that the nature of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong has turned violent, and that they challenge the One Country, Two Systems principle which grants Hong Kong’s autonomy. In late September 2019, he warned that U.S. Congressional interference in the Hong Kong protests would damage the relationship between the U.S. and China.
Similarly, in mid-September 2019, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that “Hong Kong affairs are purely China's internal affairs. No foreign government, organization, or individual has any right to interfere.”
Some industry groups have expressed concerns that legislation supporting Hong Kong or expressing opposition to China’s actions against protestors could threaten trade talks between the U.S. and China. President Trump has suggested that China could “humanely” settle the Hong Kong protests before trade talks conclude.
This legislation unanimously passed the House Committee on Foreign Affairs with the support of 27 bipartisan cosponsors, including 21 Democrats and six Republicans.
Of Note: The Hong Kong police have used weapons from Nonlethal Technologies (a Pennsylvania-based company) and ALS (a Florida-based company), among others. Nonlethal Technologies also supplied riot-control equipment to a number of Middle Eastern companies during the Arab Spring.
According to police figures, Hong Kong authorities used more than 1,800 rounds of tear gas from the start of the protests in June to early September 2019. Much of the tear gas was manufactured by Nonlethal Technologies.
In a letter to their Congressional colleagues seeking cosponsors for this bill, the Congressional-Executive Commission on the People’s Republic of China noted that Hong Kong police have used U.S.-made crowd control equipment against peaceful protestors:
“In recent months, journalists and Hong Kong citizens have provided credible evidence showing that the Hong Kong Police Force has used tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, batons, and other crowd control equipment against peaceful protesters in violation of manufacturer guidelines and international standards. In at least some instances, U.S.-made crowd control equipment was involved.”
In August 2019, the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said it received credible evidence that Hong Kong law enforcement had employed non-lethal weapons “in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards.” The UN said that Hong Kong police officers had been seen firing tear gas canisters into crowded, enclosed areas and directly at individual protestors. Both these practices raise the risk of death or serious injury.
The British government suspended its exports of crowd-control equipment to Hong Kong in June 2019. At the time, then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said the ban would remain in place until concerns about human rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong were addressed.
The Hong Kong police force is already turning to mainland Chinese suppliers for its anti-riot gear needs. In late August 2019, the force confirmed its pivot away from European vendors in favor of purchasing anti-riot protective gear from a mainland manufacturer. Concurrently, mainland Chinese companies are expected to step up tear gas production due to rising domestic and international demand (however, Hong Kong isn’t yet believed to be an export destination).
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / LewisTsePuiLung)