The U.S. Acts to Protect Human Rights- But at the Expense of Trade?

Photo by AP/J. Scott Applewhite

Rob La Terza

On November 27, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law. The Act, which Beijing had warned the U.S. not to pass, imposes greater scrutiny on China’s actions in the Hong Kong special administrative region. Under the Act, the U.S. State Department must prepare an annual report on the status of Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy and recommend whether Hong Kong retains enough independence from the mainland to justify its special trading relationship with the U.S. For more detailed coverage of what the Act entails, read USCNPM’s previous coverage here and here.  

            As promised, Beijing condemned the Act’s passage. China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad to reprimand the U.S.’ actions, with foreign vice-minister Le Yucheng stating “For the erroneous act by the U.S., China will certainly take firm countermeasures and the U.S. side will be fully responsible for all the consequences.” China also called the Act “a blatant hegemonic move.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi criticized the U.S.’ move more forcefully, saying, “some politicians in the United States are now smearing, attacking, slandering China to a level close to madness.”

Increasingly heated rhetoric from Beijing

            Beijing’s increasingly incendiary rhetoric is part of a growing trend in Chinese global diplomacy. As suspicion of the U.S. and “growing political paranoia” become dominant policy drivers for Beijing, China’s diplomats find themselves under pressure to follow the party line. Brookings Institution fellow Ryan Hass described current Chinese diplomacy as “matching the mood of the moment in Beijing,” adding that “Beijing rewards diplomats that are aggressive advocates of China’s views and scorns those that it perceives as overly timid.” Chinese diplomats interviewed by Bloomberg say that Chinese officials have “become far more aggressive and assertive in private meetings in recent years,” with one high-ranking foreign envoy explaining China’s current attitude as “more ideological” and built on “a strong sense of grievance combined with increasing entitlement about China’s international role and rights.” Diplomats who follow the increasingly antagonistic line from Beijing have been rewarded. For example, Zhao Lijian, a Chinese diplomat who has become well-known for his strongly worded criticisms of U.S. domestic and foreign policy, has been promoted to the rank of deputy director general of the Foreign Ministry’s information department.

Limited Chinese retaliation          

            China retaliated to the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act by suspending rest-and-recuperation visits to Hong Kong by U.S. military ships and aircraft. China also announced that they would impose sanctions on American NGOs operating in Hong Kong. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying claimed:

“There is a lot of evidence proving that these NGOs have supported anti-China forces to create chaos in Hong Kong, and encouraged them to engage in extreme violent criminal acts and ‘Hong Kong independence’ separatist activities…They have a large responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong, and deserve to be sanctioned and pay the price.”

China has not provided evidence to back its allegations against the NGOs, which include Human Rights Watch, the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute and Freedom House. The Chinese foreign ministry did not give any additional details about these sanctions or how these NGO’s operations will be affected in Hong Kong. Although China utilized charged rhetoric, commentators have stated that Beijing purposefully limited the scope of its retaliatory measures to ensure that the dispute over the Act does not derail trade negotiations.

Limited Impact on Trade Talks

            As of December 2, the U.S. appeared undeterred by China’s retaliation to the Act. President Trump acknowledged that the Act was a setback in ongoing trade talks, telling reporters the recently passed law “doesn’t make it better, but we’ll see what happens.” Trump expressed optimism, saying, “The Chinese want a deal. We’ll see what happens.” However, Axios reported on December 1 that trade negotiations were “stalled because of Hong Kong legislation.” The report also stated another reason for delay, saying “time was needed to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s domestic politics to calm.” However, time for delays may be running out as December 15th, and a new round of tariffs, approaches.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross told Fox Business that Trump will likely enact the scheduled 15% tariff on $156 billion worth of Chinese goods unless the U.S. and China make progress in their trade negotiations, saying “If nothing happens between now and then, the president has made quite clear he’ll put the tariffs in- the increased tariffs.” Ross expressed confidence in the U.S.’ economic position, stating “We have a very strong economy and [the Chinese] have lots of problems.”  That confidence may reflect the U.S.’ willingness to impose the December 15 tariffs and weather China’s retaliation. Ross elaborated that negotiations were “making progress, but it’s one step forward, one step backward. We need an overall package that meets our requirements for the phase one,” and noted that agriculture purchases were the top priority for the phase one deal. On Dec. 3, ahead of a meeting of NATO leaders in London, President Trump said there was “no deadline” for a trade war deal with China. He said a timeline was up to him, and it may happen after the Nov. 2020 election. Trump changed his tune again on Dec. 4, saying that trade talks “are going very well.” A Dec. 4 Bloomberg report states that the U.S. and China are approaching an agreement on tariff rollbacks to be included in the phase one trade deal.

Near-unanimous passage of UIGHUR Act

New tensions could emerge from the U.S. House of Representatives’ passage of the UIGHUR (Uyghur Intervention and Global Humanitarian Unified Response) Act condemning China’s policy towards Uyghurs in Xinjiang. The Act was first introduced in the Senate and was passed unanimously. The House of Representatives passed an amended version of the bill with 407 yea votes and one nay. In its current form, the Act “requires the President to impose Global Magnitsky sanctions against all Chinese officials who are responsible for the suppression of the Uighurs” within 120 days of the Act becoming law. The Act also requires the U.S. government to “identify technologies that assist China in surveillance, mass detention, and forced labor and prevents these items from being exported from the United States to China.” Additionally, the Act commits the U.S. to “work with other countries to prevent them from exporting these technologies to China.” Previous versions of the Act included provisions such as requiring the FBI to report on “its efforts to protect ethnic Uyghurs and Chinese nationals in the United States from Chinese government intimidation,” and the U.S. Agency for Global Media to report on “ the reach of U.S. media into Xinjiang, assessments of Chinese propaganda strategies, and U.S. actions to counter such efforts to downplay the crackdown.” Whether these provisions were included in the recently passed House bill is unknown.

The Senate is expected to pass a version of the amended House bill, and expedited procedures are being considered to have the bill on President Trump’s desk as soon as possible. Beijing has condemned the bill, calling it a “malicious attack on China.” Analysts warn that China’s retaliation against the UIGHUR Act could be more severe than the relatively muted reaction to the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, tweeted that Beijing would release an “unreliable entities” and impose sanctions on entities included in the list. According to the Times, the list will include “relevant” U.S. entities because the UIGHUR Act will “harm Chinese firms’ interests.”     

Phase One Trade Talks    

As of now, it appears that the U.S.’ passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act only poses an indirect threat to the phase one trade deal. The U.S. does not seem deterred by China’s retaliatory measures, and the limited scope of China’s actions indicates that Beijing would prefer to sign a deal. The Act’s threat comes from its apparent creation of domestic turmoil in China, delaying President Xi’s efforts to reach a deal. If Xi is unable to resolve internal disputes, the U.S.’ tariffs on December 15 and any Chinese retaliation would make a deal less likely. The timing of the UIGHUR Act also complicates the situation. If the Act is signed into law and China retaliates, the trade deal could face further delays depending on the severity of China’s retaliation. If a phase one trade deal proves impossible to reach before December 15, the U.S. will hopefully delay its tariffs to prevent further escalation of the trade conflict. Further escalation would entrench each side, and make it even more difficult to achieve a trade deal in the coming year.

Rob La Terza is an intern in The Carter Center’s China Program. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Carter Center.