WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — President Trump on Wednesday signed tough legislation that would impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, signaling support for pro-democracy activists in the territory and escalating tensions with Beijing as Mr. Trump tries to negotiate a trade deal with Chinese leaders.
Whether Mr. Trump would ultimately sign the legislation had been a subject of debate, as he refused to commit to doing so as late as last week, saying that he supported the protesters but that President Xi Jinping of China was “a friend of mine.” But Mr. Trump was left with no other option, as the bill had passed both chambers by veto-proof majorities.
Mr. Trump’s decision, publicly announced the evening before Thanksgiving, throws a potential wrench into the United States’ bilateral trade talks with China. Both countries have tried to keep the Hong Kong issue separate from their negotiations, which have been moving at a slow but steady pace.
Mr. Trump tried to frame his decision to sign the legislation, as well as another bill that bans the sale of crowd-control munitions such as tear gas and rubber bullets to the Hong Kong police, as not disrespecting Mr. Xi, even though China’s government had demanded that Mr. Trump reject the measure. The president had previously skirted around the battles between pro-democracy demonstrators and police forces enforcing China’s authoritarian stance in Hong Kong.
“I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China and the people of Hong Kong,” Mr. Trump said in a statement on Wednesday. “They 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 Hong Kong government had also argued that the bill was unnecessary, making its case even more vigorously after the territory was able to hold peaceful local elections last Sunday in which antigovernment candidates won 87 percent of the seats. The vote showed that “democracy is alive and well,” and that the Hong Kong bill that went through Congress was unnecessary, said Ronny Tong, a member of the cabinet of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive.
But Mr. Trump was ultimately left with little choice but to sign the bill, which could have been enacted without Mr. Trump’s signature after Dec. 3. Congress also could have overridden a veto. Even some of Mr. Trump’s most ardent trade supporters had cautioned against rebuffing the legislation.
The main measure, titled the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, would not only compel the United States to impose sanctions on officials, but also require the State Department to annually review the special autonomous status it grants the territory in trade considerations. That status is separate from the relationship with mainland China, and a revocation of the status would mean less favorable trade conditions between the United States and Hong Kong.
China’s Foreign Ministry strongly criticized Mr. Trump’s signing of the bill, which it said “seriously interfered with Hong Kong affairs, seriously interfered with China’s internal affairs, and seriously violated international law and basic norms of international relations.”
“It was a clear hegemonic act,” the ministry said, “and the Chinese government and people firmly opposed it.”
The ministry stopped short of linking Hong Kong in any way to the trade talks, although trade is outside the its jurisdiction. The ministry did conclude its statement, however, with a warning: “We advise the United States not to act arbitrarily, or China will resolutely counteract it, and all consequences arising must be borne by the United States.”
Although Mr. Trump announced last month that the United States and China had reached a “historic” Phase 1 trade agreement, signing a deal has proved elusive. Mr. Trump has continued to play coy about whether he will agree to remove any of the tariffs he has placed on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods. A Dec. 15 deadline looms for the United States to decide whether to impose another round of tariffs on even more Chinese imports, including consumer goods like smartphones and laptops.
Evan S. Medeiros, a Georgetown University professor who was the senior Asia director on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council staff, said Mr. Trump’s action could mean that he thought signing the bill would allow him to look tough on China to American voters without entirely upsetting the negotiations.
“Signing the bill is an important signal amid the trade talks, but not an unpredicted one given the near unanimous congressional support,” he said. “The real question is how the president will use these new authorities. Perhaps this move is best understood as a leading indicator that U.S.-China trade talks are essentially done.”
Lawmakers from both parties had clamored for the president to sign the legislation as a show of support for the young demonstrators who have been defiantly pushing back against China’s tightening hold over the semiautonomous territory.
“If America does not speak up for human rights in Hong Kong because of commercial issues, we lose all moral authority to speak about human rights anywhere in the world,” Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said this month after the bill passed the House. “With these bills, we say America stands on the side of freedom and justice.”
In recent months, a bipartisan push to confront China and its authoritarian leader has grown on a wide range of issues, including commercial practices, global infrastructure building and the detention of at least a million Muslim ethnic minority members in camps in northwest China.
“The U.S. now has new and meaningful tools to deter further influence and interference from Beijing into Hong Kong’s internal affairs,” said Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida and one of the legislation’s many champions in the upper chamber. “This new law could not be more timely in showing strong U.S. support for Hong Kongers’ long-cherished freedoms.”
Mr. Trump has been trying to get China to agree to a trade deal that would benefit American farmers and manufacturers and allow technology firms to operate more freely in that country. The desire to sign a deal that ends pain for American farmers has become particularly important ahead of the 2020 presidential election, and Mr. Trump has left the impression that all other issues related to China are secondary, especially ones related to human rights.
Last Friday, in an interview on “Fox & Friends,” Mr. Trump said, “We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.” Last June, Mr. Trump promised Mr. Xi in a telephone conversation that he would not speak out in support of the Hong Kong protests as long as trade talks were progressing. Mr. Trump did mention Hong Kong during a speech in September at the United Nations General Assembly, but did so while praising Mr. Xi, and he has not consistently made strong statements on Hong Kong.
In a separate statement issued on Wednesday evening, Mr. Trump appeared to hedge his full-throated support for the broader legislation, saying that “certain provisions of the act would interfere with the exercise of the president’s constitutional authority to state the foreign policy of the United States.”
“My administration will treat each of the provisions of the act consistently with the president’s constitutional authorities with respect to foreign relations,” Mr. Trump said. He did not specify which parts of the bill posed such interference with executive powers.
One of the main provisions compels the administration to impose economic and travel sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials found to be violating human rights in the territory. Mr. Trump or relevant agencies could try to slow walk such sanctions — and might even use the threat of imposing them to as a cudgel against China in trade negotiations.
For months, Hong Kong protesters had called for the United States to pass the bill. The protesters in October even held a rally supporting in the bill that was attended by more than 100,000 people; many waved American flags or wrapped them around their bodies. Protesters say the law would give them more leverage over officials in China and Hong Kong, since the officials want to maintain access to the United States for themselves and their family members, and they also want to preserve the favorable trade status between Washington and Hong Kong.
“I hope it can act as a warning to Hong Kong and Beijing officials, pro-Beijing people and the police,” said Nelson Lam, 32, a food importer and regular protester. “I think if they know that what they do may lead to sanctions, then they will become restrained when dealing with protests. We just want our autonomy back. We are not their foe.”
Within the White House, Matthew Pottinger, the deputy national security adviser and former senior Asia director on Mr. Trump’s National Security Council staff, has advocated for tough policies against China. On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declined to openly endorse the bill when asked about it by reporters, but did say, “We have human rights standards that we apply all across the world, and Hong Kong is no different.”
Emily Cochrane reported from West Palm Beach, Fla.; Edward Wong from Houston; and Keith Bradsher from Shanghai.