WASHINGTON — Activists involved in the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong appealed to U.S. lawmakers Tuesday to support their fight by banning the export of American police equipment that is used against demonstrators and by more closely monitoring Chinese efforts to undermine civil liberties in the city.
The activists, including several young people who have emerged as prominent figures in a leaderless movement, testified before a U.S. government commission set up by Congress to monitor human rights in China.
Republicans and Democrats on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China expressed their support Tuesday for protests that began in June with a since-withdrawn bill to extradite people arrested in the semiautonomous Chinese territory to China for prosecution.
"The heart of the discontent is that Hong Kong's political leaders do not represent and are not accountable to the people. Instead, Hong Kong's leaders are beholden to the Chinese government," said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass.
The former British colony has been allowed certain autonomy and freedoms since it was returned to China in 1997 as a territory, with a "one country, two systems" policy that was supposed to ensure a smooth political transition.
Under U.S. law, the territory of Hong Kong receives special treatment in matters of trade, customs, sanctions enforcement, law enforcement cooperation and more. China has benefited from this, and lawmakers believe, used it to evade U.S. export controls and sanctions.
Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., has authored legislation that places Beijing on "annual notice" that they will lose Hong Kong's special economic and trade status if its autonomy continues to erode.
Smith's bill would also allow qualified Hong Kong residents to work or study in the U.S. even if they have been arrested for participating in nonviolent protests.
Earlier this month, Smith, McGovern and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., put forward legislation that would block U.S. company exports of police weapons and equipment to Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong activist who has been jailed multiple times, told lawmakers that Hong Kong is a "police state," where every demonstration is automatically an illegal assembly that results in violent police arrest and where protesters gather amid a mounting Chinese military troop present across the border.
"The present state of affairs reveals Beijing's utter inability to understand, let alone govern, a free society," Wong said.
Activist Sunny Cheung told lawmakers that young protesters face riot police carrying letters with their last will.
"They believe the only limits to their freedom are their deaths," Cheung said. "We fight for freedom from a sense of duty and dignity."
Denise Ho, a Hong Kong-based pop artist who has testified on the issue before the United Nations, told lawmakers that more than 1,500 people in Hong Kong, including a 12-year-old child, have been arrested. Many more have been injured by police tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons and batons.
Ho said many artists in Hong Kong, companies, as well as institutions in nations like Australia and Canada have backed down from supporting the Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters because of China's intimidation.
China has also used social media campaigns, cyberattacks and technology to target increasingly paranoid protesters, and present them as the problem to the West.
Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry, ascribed the violence in Hong Kong to the protesters at a Tuesday briefing in Beijing. She derided Western politicians meeting with Hong Kong "separatists" at cocktail parties and now in the United States.
"Hong Kong is China's internal affair," she said. "No foreign government, organization or individual can interfere. We advise them to have a clear understanding of the situation and pull out their dirty hands from Hong Kong."