Officials from Hong Kong flew to Montana last week for an under-the-radar meeting with U.S. lawmakers about ongoing pro-democracy protests and congressional legislation to protect freedom in Hong Kong, according to sources familiar with the meeting.
The Hong Kong delegation included officials who approve of the government’s controversial extradition bill that originally kickstarted the mass protests as well as those who support the pro-democracy movement. The bill, put forward by Hong Kong, would allow China to detain and extradite people who are wanted in territories Hong Kong does not have extradition agreements with, including mainland China.
The group met with Senator Steve Daines (R-MT) and Rep. Greg Gianforte (R-MT), Rep. Hank Johnson (D-GA), and Rep. Thomas Suozzi (D-NY). The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation, a non-profit that focuses on U.S.-Asia policy, hosted the officials for a series of roundtable discussions over a three-day period. The conversations took place just days after protests shut down the Hong Kong airport.
Part of the meeting between Hong Kong officials and U.S. lawmakers focused on the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy act pending in the Senate.
The bill, in part, would exact punitive measures on officials in China and Hong Kong who suppress human rights or “basic freedoms” in Hong Kong. In Montana, some Hong Kong officials disagreed on the bill and some called for an end to it altogether, according to two individuals familiar with the conversation. U.S. lawmakers present said they were unsure of the fate of the bill in part because they were unsure where President Donald Trump stood on the issue, those sources said. (Trump has yet to publicly call out China for its involvement in the crackdown and has instead praised President Xi Jinping, calling him a “great leader” at the G7 summit in France last week.)
The Montana meeting came as protesters in Hong Kong continue to flood streets, airports, and government buildings.
U.S. lawmakers are increasingly interested in taking action against China for Hong Kong. Republicans in the Senate and House have consulted with senior officials from the State Department and Treasury about drafting legislation that would sanction Chinese entities that support the suppression of protests in Hong Kong. Lawmakers want to deter China from cracking down in the future by threatening to impose increasingly steep political and financial punishments.
Trump said earlier last week that any violence carried out by China in Hong Kong would “hurt” trade talks. Sen. Daines, who participated in the conversations in Montana, announced Monday that he plans to travel to China next week to talk about the ongoing spat between the two countries.
Attendees were supposed to adhere to the “Chatham House Rule,” guidelines whereby participants promise not to speak about the existence of an event or its contents, according to a source familiar with the meeting. The agreement broke down when several of the Hong Kong officials spoke to their local press about the meeting.
The Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation told The Daily Beast in a statement it had been planning last week’s dialogue since late 2018. “It was neither conceived nor convened in response to the protests in Hong Kong. The planning for this program, including invitations to members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and the United States Congress, began before the Hong Kong extradition bill was introduced this spring,” the foundation said.
Pro-democracy officials held a press conference Tuesday in Hong Kong, calling for the U.S. Senate to publicly support their movement through new legislation.
Meanwhile, one of the officials aligned with Beijing, Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, posted photos to her Facebook page of the group in Montana. Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee is a member of the executive and legislative councils in Hong Kong and has promoted the government’s extradition bill and called for pro-democracy protesters to disperse from the streets.
Editor’s Note, 8/29/19: This story has been updated with comment from the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Foundation.