Chanting “Stand with Hong Kong,” pro-democracy activists on Thursday urged the world to follow U.S. footsteps by passing laws backing human rights in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, as police teams began a cleanup of a Hong Kong university earlier occupied by demonstrators.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong, who was among democracy supporters who lobbied for the new U.S. laws, called them a “remarkable achievement,” with human rights triumphing over crucial U.S.-China trade talks.
President Donald Trump signed the two bills into law on Wednesday. One of the laws prescribes economic sanctions on Asia’s top financial hub and diplomatic action on Hong Kong and Chinese officials found guilty of human rights abuses. The other bans the export of certain nonlethal munitions to Hong Kong police.
Wong said he hopes the laws will spur Britain and other Western nations to follow suit. He said he would participate in a parliamentary hearing in Italy online later Thursday to press for further global support.
“Now is the time for the Western world to stand with Hong Kong,” he said.
Echoing Wong’s call, dozens of office workers and activists chanted “This is what democracy looks like” and other slogans during a daily lunchtime rally downtown. Some urged Washington to penalize the city’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, over the government’s handling of the crisis.
A protester held a placard saying, “Thank You Mr. Trump, Sanction #1 Carrie Lam.”
More than 5,000 people have been detained since the unrest began in June over a China extradition bill seen as an erosion of freedoms promised when the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. The movement has since expanded its demands to include democratic elections and an independent investigation of police conduct.
China reacted furiously to the U.S. laws. Hong Kong’s government also denounced the U.S. legislation as “unreasonable” meddling, saying it sends the wrong signal to protesters and won’t help to ease the crisis.
C.Y. Leung, Hong Kong’s chief executive for five years until 2017, said the U.S. legislation was targeted at containing China’s growth. He said Beijing promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy,” not full autonomy, and warned the city risks losing even this freedom with the foreign intervention.
“The world is seeing a singular view of Hong Kong events through the lens of those who wish to destroy its parent where the only possible outcome is to completely sacrifice the child,” Leung said.
The U.S. legislation followed a stunning election victory by the pro-democracy camp in local elections on Sunday, in a stinging rebuke to Carrie Lam.
Willy Lam, a political expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said U.S. support will place more pressure on Hong Kong’s government and make Beijing “think twice” about using harsher tactics to quell the unrest.
“It is a major turning point in the protest movement,” he said.
Many protesters feel it’s premature to celebrate because Carrie Lam has not offered any new concessions to their demands.
Earlier Thursday, about 100 personnel, including hazmat teams and explosive disposal experts, fanned out across the vast Polytechnic University to clear stockpiles of hazardous materials including gasoline bombs and corrosive liquid.
Media footage showed officers searching buildings. Police said they removed more than 600 gasoline bombs and other items.
The move came after the university’s administration said it believed no one remained inside after a two-day search ended Wednesday. Faculty teams found only a young woman in weak condition.
The university has been ringed by police for 11 days as protesters retreated into the campus after blocking a major tunnel and setting tollbooths on fire during clashes with police. Some 1,100 protesters have left or have been arrested.
Hours before the police operation, a masked protester came out from hiding and told reporters there were fewer than 20 others holed up inside. The protester, who identified himself as Ah Bong, said they distrusted the police and opposed the operation.
Police said any holdouts found will not be arrested but will be coaxed into seeking medical treatment, with their details taken down for possible action later.
Police official Chow Yat Ming said the priority of the operation is to remove dangerous items that are a threat to public safety and gather evidence of “malicious” damage to campus facilities.