WASHINGTON D.C.: Washington backed calls for voters in Hong Kong to be given a say in nominating their next leader after half a million protesters marched through the city’s streets on Tuesday.
“We support Hong Kong’s well-established traditions and basic law protections that include internationally recognized freedoms such as freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression,” State Department deputy spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
“We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is really essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity,” she told reporters, risking the ire of China.
Waving colonial-era flags and chanting anti-Beijing slogans, Tuesday’s protest was the largest since Hong Kong was handed back to China by Britain in 1997, organizers said.
The scale of the rally reflects surging discontent over Beijing’s insistence that it vet candidates before a vote in 2017 for the semi-autonomous Chinese city’s next leader.
“I know details about the election process for the chief executive in 2017 are still being worked out,” Harf said.
“But we believe that the legitimacy of this person will be enhanced if universal suffrage is fulfilled and if the election provides a genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the voters’ will,” she added.
Some 800,000 people have taken part in an informal referendum demanding that voters be allowed a say in the nomination of the 2017 candidates, in a poll branded by Beijing “illegal and invalid.”
Hong Kong police arrested more than 500 protesters at a sit-in early Wednesday following a huge march that organizers said mobilized half a million people demanding democratic reforms.
The arrests followed the largely peaceful march on Tuesday that protest leaders said brought the biggest crowds onto the streets since the city was handed over from Britain to China in 1997.
Police moved in at 3 a.m. to break up the sit-in by about 2,000 protesters in the semi-autonomous city’s Central financial district.
They said 511 demonstrators were arrested for illegal assembly or obstructing police, but pro-democracy activists and Amnesty International criticized the move as excessive.
Several pro-democracy lawmakers were among those arrested.
Police lifted activists, many lying on the ground with their arms chained to each other, onto coaches that took them to a temporary detention center at a police college in Wong Chuk Hang district.
Some of those detained were released without charge.
Pro-democracy group Occupy Central has said it will stage a mass sit-in in Central later this year unless authorities come up with acceptable electoral reforms.
Hong Kong enjoys liberties not seen on the mainland, including free speech and the right to protest, but there are heightened fears that those freedoms are being eroded.
Concerns increased in June when Beijing published a controversial “white paper” on Hong Kong’s future that was widely seen as a warning to the city not to overstep its bounds.
After the document was published, nearly 800,000 people took part in an unofficial referendum calling for residents to have a say in the nomination of candidates for chief executive in the 2017 election.
Beijing branded the vote “illegal and invalid”.
Tens of thousands of marchers on Tuesday carried banners with slogans including “We want real democracy” and “We stand united against China.”