The United States is taking the protests in Hong Kong “extremely seriously”, Washington’s top diplomat for East Asia said, adding that he hopes the long-running dispute can be resolved peacefully.
Speaking to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, David Stilwell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, said that the withdrawal of the highly unpopular extradition bill and government’s offer to engage in dialogue with the public were both positive signals.
However, it was important the Hong Kong government continued to adhere to the Basic Law – the city’s mini constitution – and was granted the autonomy promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration on its return to China in 1997, he said.
“This [the protest] has been going on for 100 days, it has passed the anniversary,” Stilwell said, adding that “we take this extremely seriously”.
“In all interactions that I’ve been in with the secretary [of state, Mike Pompeo] on this subject … [the] strong advice [has been] to resolve this through dialogue, peacefully.
“Simply listen to what the protesters are asking, and I do believe that you have seen positive motion in that regard from Carrie Lam and the others.”
On Monday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor announced the creation of a “Dialogue Office” to provide a channel for communication between the government and the public.
“I think any dialogue or any addressing of the protesters’ concerns will be effective,” he said. “And it does give them both a voice that they ask for, and the option to execute their choice of government.”
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In response to questions from senators, Stilwell said the withdrawal of the extradition bill showed the US had been successful in pressuring Beijing to “do the right thing in Hong Kong”.
US President Donald Trump has called for a “humane” resolution to the protests, but Beijing has repeatedly decried remarks from American politicians on the matter, describing them as “interference” in Hong Kong affairs.
Stilwell disagreed that the US was interfering, saying there was no evidence of such because none existed.
His comments came after more than three months of anti-government protests in Hong Kong, which were triggered by public opposition to the extradition bill but rapidly expanded into calls for an independent inquiry into police violence and universal suffrage.
Despite concerns about the city’s eroded autonomy, Stilwell said Hong Kong was still sufficiently autonomous from Beijing under the “one country, two systems” framework, a fact demonstrated by the protesters’ success in pressuring Lam into withdrawing the extradition bill even after it appeared to have been a “done deal”.
US lawmakers have proposed legislation to support the protesters’ appeals, including the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was championed on Wednesday by Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the US House of Representatives.
The legislation includes such measures as annual reviews of Hong Kong’s autonomy to determine if it should continue to be granted US trading privileges, and sanctions on individuals charged with undermining human rights in the city.
Other legislative options on the table for the US include a proposed law to halt the sale of American crowd-control products, like tear gas, to Hong Kong. Britain introduced a similar restriction following accusations that police in the city were using excessive force against the protesters.
“I am aware there are a number of policy options, there’s a number of legal options for dealing with these things,” Stilwell said.
“As far as identifying individuals and then taking action, we certainly take that under advisement, and we’ll continue to watch that. We can continue our support, both rhetorical and legal, as emphasised by the Hong Kong Policy Act.”