US senators hope Hong Kong sanctions bill dissuades China

Protesters attend a pro-democracy rally against a proposed new security law in Hong Kong

US senators vowed Tuesday to move quickly on a bill that threatens sanctions on Chinese officials seen as undermining Hong Kong's autonomy and voiced hope the measures would dissuade Beijing.

The proposal, which would punish individuals who curb hong Kong's freedoms, came after Beijing last week put forward a controversial bill that would ban treason and other perceived offenses in the financial hub, which was rocked last year by major pro-democracy protests.

Senator Pat Toomey, a Republican co-leading the bill with a Democrat, said that while China is not a democracy, its leadership is "certainly subject to political pressure."

"When business interests and financial interests realize that this tool can be deployed, I think there's going to be a whole new level of pressure for the government not to trigger this kind of response," he said.

"My hope is that it will increase the likelihood that the worst potential behavior from Beijing is averted for the sake of the people of Hong Kong," he said.

Senator Chris Van Hollen, the Democrat teaming up with Toomey, said the pair want colleagues to "send a very strong message" to Beijing.

"The timing of this is more important than ever, so we intend to move quickly," Van Hollen said.

The bill follows a law last year, angrily denounced by Beijing, that would strip Hong Kong's special trading status with the United States if it is no longer considered autonomous -- as Beijing had promised before Britain handed over the colony in 1997.

The new legislation would open the way for US financial sanctions on individuals such as Chinese officials and Hong Kong police -- and, critically, the banks that do transactions with them.

"We want to make sure that we're squeezing those individuals who are at the heart of these decisions to deprive the people of Hong Kong of their rights," Van Hollen said.

In one key difference, the proposed law would let Congress vote to override the administration if it waives any punishments against individuals.

President Donald Trump's administration had delayed a decision on whether to certify Hong Kong's continued autonomy and, until Beijing's introduction of the law, some lawmakers worried it would not follow through.