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US senator warns Hong Kong of becoming 'police state'

Riot police officers patrol during a protest at Tseung Kwan O district, in Hong Kong, China. Photograph:( Reuters )

AFP Hong Kong, China Oct 14, 2019, 03.58 PM (IST)

Strife-torn Hong Kong is sliding towards becoming a police state, US senator Josh Hawley warned Monday, as the financial hub braces for a rally calling on Washington to punish China over sliding freedoms.

The international finance hub was battered by another weekend of unrest Sunday as hardcore pro-democracy protesters and police fought running battles across the city. 

Protests pushing for greater democratic freedoms and police accountability have raged for the last 19 weeks and there is little end in sight as Beijing and local leaders refuse concessions.

Watch: Protesters set ATMs on blaze in Hong Kong

A large crowd is expected to gather in the heart of the city's commercial district Monday evening calling for US politicians to pass a bill that could dramatically alter Washington's relationship with the trading hub.

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which could be discussed and voted on by the House of Representatives as early as this week, would require annual reviews of the territory's special trading status -- and potentially sanction some Chinese officials.

Monday's rally is expected to be large because it is one of the few protests in recent weeks to be granted permission to go ahead by police.

Among the bill's sponsors is Hawley, a Republican senator for Missouri.

He made a quick two-day trip to Hong Kong and watched the protests on Sunday night in the crowded district of Mongkok, later meeting with prominent democracy activist Joshua Wong.

"The situation here is urgent," he told reporters on Monday. 

Asked what his message would be on returning to Washington he replied: "That Hong Kong is in danger of sliding towards a police state and that representative government in Hong Kong is at risk, and that the one country two systems model is at risk."

One country, two systems is deal China agreed to ahead of the 1997 handover by Britain in which it agreed to allow Hong Kong to keep its unique freedoms such as free speech and an independent judiciary for 50 years.

Democracy activists inside Hong Kong have long accused Beijing of chipping away at those freedoms, a gripe that has fuelled years of growing resentment which exploded this summer. 

Threats from Xi

China has accused "external forces" of fuelling unrest in the semi-autonomous city and has seized on supportive comments by western politicians to back its claims. 

Hawley's remarks came after Chinese President Xi Jinping issued his most dire warning yet amid the anti-Beijing unrest in Hong Kong.

"Anyone who attempts to split any region from China will perish, with their bodies smashed and bones ground to powder," he said during a trip to Nepal.

"Any external forces that support the splitting of China can only be regarded as delusional by the Chinese people," he said, according to the foreign ministry.

Hawley, at 39 the youngest serving senator and a vocal China hawk, described Xi's comments as "violent rhetoric" that illustrated why he believed the US and its European allies needed to take a stronger line at Beijing's growing regional threat.

Republican China hawks such as Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have become some of the most vocal supporters of Hong Kong's democracy movement on Capitol Hill -- although the proposed bill is rapidly gathering bipartisan support, especially in the Senate.

Cruz also made a visit to Hong Kong on Saturday during which he accused Beijing of trying to impose a "dictatorship" on the city. 

He also said Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam cancelled a meeting because he refused to promise to keep the conversation private -- although Lam's office said she had "other commitments".

During Sunday's clashes one policeman was slashed in the neck with a knife while another undercover officer was beaten.

Police said a remote-controlled homemade bomb exploded near them in Mongkok, the first time such a device had been used. No-one was injured. 

Story highlights

A large crowd is expected to gather in the heart of the city's commercial district Monday evening calling for US politicians to pass a bill that could dramatically alter Washington's relationship with the trading hub.