Americans were preparing to pop the turkey in the oven as they heard that U.S. President Donald Trump has signed two acts aimed at protecting Hong Kong's rights into law. He put pen to paper after U.S. markets closed on Wednesday -- on Thanksgiving Eve. It's right when many Americans are on the move to meet family and diplomatic relations between your uncle and your sister-in-law take on greater importance than trade tension with China.
It's an early Christmas present for us here in Hong Kong. The pro-democracy forces thank Trump wholeheartedly for this move, even if he made it half-heartedly.
It's not Thanksgiving in China, of course, and the Chinese are furious about the new laws. China says it will deploy "firm counter measures" against U.S. interference in Hong Kong, summoning the U.S. ambassador in Beijing for a second lecture on the topic of the laws.
"The nature of this is extremely abominable, and harbours absolutely sinister intentions," the Foreign Ministry said in a statement. If the United States continues to go its own way, "the U.S. side must bear all the ensuing consequences."
It hasn't specified what the vague countermeasures will be. It could deny access for trips to Hong Kong and China for U.S. lawmakers who sponsored the act. It could also make it more difficult for U.S. companies to get permits in China, or for executives to travel to the mainland.
It's worth watching to see if there are commercial consequences. I doubt it. The measures are likely to remain diplomatic, and largely toothless. The Chinese Commerce Ministry did not mention the new laws at a regular briefing on Thursday. Trade and diplomacy appear to be split on this front.
Hong Kong stocks were strangely unmoved on Thursday. But absent any U.S. trading, they've dropped 2.0% in thin trade on Friday, the sharpest dip on a down day in Asia. Japanese stocks lost 0.5%. There are more protests planned for Hong Kong this weekend. So investors are responding to continued tension, and a day late after the new laws sink in.
I must admit, I'm pleasantly surprised by Trump, who normally conflates business and politics. I was sure he would use Hong Kong as a bargaining chip. But it's clear he felt, in the election run-up, that he would lose votes by failing to back human rights and the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong.
The acts had passed through both the Senate and the House of Representatives virtually unopposed, giving them a veto-proof majority. But I still figured Trump would make a show of refusing to sign the acts into law, knowing he would be overruled, on the basis of his on-again, off-again bromance with Chinese President Xi Jinping. In mulling what to do with Hong Kong, Trump said Xi is "a friend of mine," and "an incredible guy."
Trump could then have blamed all his inability to push a trade deal through on Congress. Even in agreeing to the new laws, he wasn't exactly overflowing with support for us here in Hong Kong. "I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China and the people of Hong Kong," he said.
Hong Kong is a minor distraction to Trump, who still has his eyes set on striking what says will be the biggest trade deal in the history of the world. The Hong Kong laws "are being enacted 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 Trump statement said.
In other words, leave us out of it, and sort it out yourselves. But here in Hong Kong, we thank the supporters of the acts for pushing them forward. They are symbolically important, a way of warning Beijing that the world is watching what's going on in Hong Kong.
Senator Marco Rubio says the United States "has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong's internal affairs." On a recent visit here, Rubio dressed all in black, like the pro-democracy protestors. I suspect he may be denied access if he tries to come again.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said "America is proud to stand with the people of Hong Kong on the side of freedom and justice," in a statement.
When you consider how much heat that Houston Rockets General Manager Daryl Morey took for his tweet, "Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong," these statements are striking. They show a heartening interest in human rights here. The United States, even more than the United Kingdom, is ensuring that China follows through on commitments it made when signing the Sino-British Joint Declaration with Britain that handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
The impact of the new laws would hurt Hong Kong's economy if it loses its special trading status with the United States. The main law, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, requires the U.S. State Department to do a review within 180 days, and every year thereafter, to examine whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous to justify its special trade status. Hong Kong is treated separately from China for now, and so goods from here (not that we make all that many) don't suffer the same raised tariffs as those from China.
The new law also allows the United States to impose sanctions on Hong Kong or Chinese officials adjudged to have violated human rights. It suggests granting easier access to U.S. visas for people who have faced politically motivated prosecutions in Hong Kong. The second new law bars U.S. companies from supplying tear gas, rubber bullets and the like to the Hong Kong police.
The threat of economic and travel sanctions on Hong Kong officials, including top police officers, is a significant one. Most top Hong Kong politicians here have an escape hatch -- to Britain, the United States or Canada. Their kids study there, or they own second homes. Traditionally, many have had second passports or green cards, though this has become a political hot button.
So to see an avenue of escape for retirement cut off would be painful. Suddenly, the administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam is answerable to more than just Beijing.
Trump has declined, so far, to use sanctions against officials who have violated citizens' rights in Xinjiang province, where more than 1 million mainly Muslim minority Chinese nationals have been interned in concentration camps. I doubt he will push it with Hong Kong either. He threw in some obfuscating wording that some provisions in the act "would interfere with the exercise of the president's constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States."
The point is made on Hong Kong politics. The new laws even feed into China's narrative that it is "black hands" and "foreign forces" that are directing the protests in Hong Kong. For once, Beijing's foreign-policy mouthpiece the Global Times is quite right in its editorial that Trump is unlikely to use his new powers. "Be it human rights or democracy, Trump is not interested in Hong Kong," the article says. Whether or not this "evil law" is ever used remains to be seen.
Now the full focus switches back to striking a trade deal with China. I expect both sides, despite China's protestations, will let the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act rest, and move on.