Hong Kong police chief calls for peaceful weekend protest

By Clare Jim and Sarah Wu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s police chief urged people to demonstrate peacefully on Sunday, when organizers expect a large turnout for a pro-democracy march intended to show the movement still has strong momentum.

Police have given a rare green light to the demonstration, organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), the group that called the largely peaceful million-strong marches in the summer.

“We hope our citizens can show the whole world Hong Kong people are capable of holding a large-scale rally in an orderly and peaceful manner,” police commissioner Chris Tang said on Friday before departing on a “courtesy visit” to Beijing.

Tang was expected to meet senior officials of China’s ministry of public security and return to Hong Kong hours before Sunday’s protest.

The march will gauge support for the pro-democracy movement following its victory in local elections last month.

“We want to tell Carrie Lam that the election results are not the end of the movement,” CHRF vice-convener Eric Lai said, referring to the chief executive of the Chinese-ruled city.

Police said they would intervene “immediately” if Sunday’s march turned violent. The unrest in Hong Kong is the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Hundreds of protesters came out on Friday night to urge police to stop using tear gas. More than 10,000 rounds of tear gas have been fired by police in response to increasingly violent rallies.

“It’s not only a political issue but a matter of public health,” said Leung, a 25-year-old nurse who wore a black mask. “They shoot tear gas into residential areas.”

Police have said they have been forced to used tear gas to break up violent demonstrations. Residents have cited fears of dioxin poisoning from the gas. The city government has said it has found no evidence of dioxin poisoning from tear gas.

The former British colony has been racked by six months of pro-democracy protests, sparked by a now-withdrawn bill allowing extradition to China, which have widened into calls for greater democratic freedoms.

Protesters have set out five demands, including an investigation into alleged police brutality and universal suffrage. Beijing has condemned the unrest and blamed foreign interference.

Despite the increasingly violent tactics of some protesters, pro-democracy candidates won almost 90% of seats in the Nov. 24 local elections, following the highest turnout since local polls began in 1999.

ECONOMIC STRAIN

Results of a survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI) released on Friday show public satisfaction with the police has plummeted in the past year.

Calculated on a ranking out of 100, with zero representing very dissatisfied, the police scored 35.34, almost halving from November last year when they scored 62.48.

Net satisfaction with the police is the lowest since 1997, when PORI began comparable polling.

Economic data this week points to the growing toll of the sustained protests on the major global financial hub, which slid into recession this year for the first time in a decade.

The unrest has contributed 2 percentage points to Hong Kong’s third-quarter economic contraction of 3.2%, Finance Secretary Paul Chan told legislators on Friday.

On Wednesday, Chan pledged new relief measures of an extra HK$4 billion ($511 million), taking total stimulus plans to HK$25 billion.

Subway operator MTR Corp expects a decline of HK$1.6 billion in annual net profit, hit by a drop of 14% in passengers during the protests, as well as damage to its stations and facilities.

By Saturday, transport authorities will complete a review of plans for a cash injection for Hong Kong Airlines, which is battling a steep decline in demand as a result of the protests.

(Reporting by Clare Jim and Sarah Wu; Writing by Kate Lamb and David Dolan; Editing by Michael Perry, Clarence Fernandez, Alison Williams and Giles Elgood)

U.S.-China trade deal ‘stalled because of Hong Kong legislation’: Axios

(Reuters) – A trade deal between United States and China was now “stalled because of Hong Kong legislation”, news website Axios reported on Sunday, citing a source close to U.S. President Donald Trump’s negotiating team.

The deal was stalled also because time was needed to allow Chinese President Xi Jinping’s domestic politics to calm, the report added, citing the unnamed source.

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that legislation signed by Trump on Wednesday backing protesters in Hong Kong was a serious interference in Chinese affairs.

(Reporting by Rama Venkat in Bengaluru; Editing by Sam Holmes)

China suspends U.S. military visits to Hong Kong, sanctions U.S.-based NGOs

BEIJING (Reuters) – China said on Monday U.S. military ships and aircraft won’t be allowed to visit Hong Kong, and also announced sanctions against several U.S. non-government organizations for encouraging protesters to “engage in extremist, violent and criminal acts.”

The measures were announced by China’s Foreign Ministry in response to U.S. legislation passed last week supporting anti-government protesters. It said it had suspended taking requests for U.S. military visits indefinitely, and warned of further action to come.

“We urge the U.S. to correct the mistakes and stop interfering in our internal affairs. China will take further steps if necessary to uphold Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity and China’s sovereignty,” said ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a daily news briefing in Beijing.

China last week promised it would issue “firm counter measures” after U.S. President Donald Trump signed into law the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which supports anti-government protesters in Hong Kong and threatens China with potential sanctions.

There are fears that the row over Hong Kong could impact efforts by Beijing and Washington to reach preliminary deal that could de-escalate a prolonged trade war between the two countries.

The U.S.-headquartered NGOs targeted by Beijing include the National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, the International Republican Institute, Human Rights Watch, and Freedom House.

“They shoulder some responsibility for the chaos in Hong Kong and they should be sanctioned and pay the price,” said Hua.

In more normal times, several U.S. naval ships visit Hong Kong annually, a rest-and-recreation tradition that dates back to the pre-1997 colonial era which Beijing allowed to continue after the handover from British to Chinese rule.

Visits have at times been refused amid broader tensions and two U.S. ships were denied access in August.

The USS Blue Ridge, the command ship of the Japanese-based Seventh Fleet, stopped in Hong Kong in April – the last ship to visit before mass protests broke out in June.

Foreign NGOs are already heavily restricted in China, and have previously received sharp rebukes for reporting on rights issues in the country including the mass detention of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell and Beijing Monitoring Desk; Editing by Tom Hogue & Simon Cameron-Moore)

China warns U.S. over Hong Kong law as thousands stage ‘Thanksgiving’ rally

China warns U.S. over Hong Kong law as thousands stage ‘Thanksgiving’ rally
By Jessie Pang and Cate Cadell

HONG KONG/BEIJING (Reuters) – China warned the United States on Thursday that it would take “firm counter measures” in response to U.S. legislation backing anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, and said attempts to interfere in the Chinese-ruled city were doomed to fail.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday signed into law congressional legislation which supported the protesters, despite angry objections from Beijing, with which he is seeking a deal to end a damaging trade war.

Protesters in Hong Kong responded by staging a “Thanksgiving” rally, with thousands, some draped in U.S. flags, gathering in the heart of the city.

“The rationale for us having this rally is to show our gratitude and thank the U.S Congress and also President Trump for passing the bill,” said 23-year-old Sunny Cheung, a member of the student group that lobbied for the legislation.

“We are really grateful about that and we really appreciate the effort made by Americans who support Hong Kong, who stand with Hong Kong, who do not choose to side with Beijing,” he said, urging other countries to pass similar legislation.

The law requires the State Department to certify, at least annually, that Hong Kong is autonomous enough to justify favorable U.S. trading terms that have helped it become a world financial center.

It also threatens sanctions for human rights violations.

The Chinese foreign ministry said the United States would shoulder the consequences of China’s countermeasures if it continued to “act arbitrarily” in regards to Hong Kong.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned U.S. Ambassador Terry Branstad and demanded that Washington immediately stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs.

Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government said the legislation sent the wrong signal to demonstrators and “clearly interfered” with the city’s internal affairs.

China is considering barring the drafters of the legislation, whose U.S. Senate sponsor is Florida Republican Marco Rubio, from entering mainland China as well as Hong Kong and Macau, Hu Xijin, the editor of China’s Global Times tabloid, said on Twitter.

‘SINISTER INTENTIONS’

More than 5,800 people have been arrested since the unrest broke out in June over a proposal to allow extraditions to mainland China, the numbers grew in October and November as violence escalated.

Demonstrators are angry at police violence and what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997, such as an independent judiciary.

China says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at the handover, and blames foreign forces for fomenting the unrest, an allegation it repeated in response to the U.S. law.

“This so-called legislation will only strengthen the resolve of the Chinese people, including the Hong Kong people, and raise awareness of the sinister intentions and hegemonic nature of the U.S.,” the foreign ministry said. “The U.S. plot is doomed.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang declined to comment on any countermeasures planned by Beijing.

“You better stay tuned, and follow up on this,” he said. “What will come will come.”

Gao Feng, a spokesman for China’s commerce ministry, did not comment directly on whether the law would affect trade talks, saying there were no new details of their progress to disclose. Some analysts say any move to end Hong Kong’s special treatment could harm the United States, which has benefited from business-friendly conditions in the territory.

LULL IN VIOLENCE

Anti-government protests have roiled the former British colony for six months, at times forcing businesses, government, schools and even the international airport to close.

Hong Kong has enjoyed a rare lull in violence over the past week, with local elections on Sunday delivering a landslide victory to pro-democracy candidates.

Prominent activists Joshua Wong and Denise Ho addressed the rally on Thursday night, thanking frontline protesters for the passage of the bill. Crowds sang the protest anthem “Glory to Hong Kong”, waving their phone torches.

Several hundred people also gathered outside the Polytechnic University, which police entered after a nearly two-week siege.

“The situation in Poly U is still a disaster,” said 30-year-old Ng, dressed in black and wearing a surgical mask. “We are out to show we will never forget the Poly U incident.”

The university became a battleground in mid-November, when protesters barricaded themselves in and clashed with riot police in a hail of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas. About 1,100 people were arrested last week.

It was unclear whether any protesters remained on campus as about 100 plainclothes police moved in on Thursday morning to collect evidence and remove dangerous items such as petrol bombs.

Police said they found more than 3,000 molotov cocktails and hundreds of bottles of corrosive liquids.

“The operation is going to finish today,” said Assistant Commissioner of Police (Operations) Chow Yat-ming.

He urged any remaining protesters to seek medical treatment, saying arrests were not a priority, though police were seen brushing molotov cocktails for fingerprints earlier in the day.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Kate Lamb and Anne Marie Roantree in Hong Kong and Catherine Cadell, Huizhong Wu, Stella Qiu and Judy Hua in Beijing; Writing by Farah Master, Se Young Lee, and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Clarence Fernandez and Giles Elgood)

 

Hong Kong police to enter university as hunt for protesters turns up empty

By Jessie Pang and Twinnie Siu

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police said they would enter Polytechnic University on Thursday, bringing their near two-week siege of the campus to an end, after final searches for any pro-democracy protesters still hiding turned up empty.

For a second day on Wednesday security teams from the university scoured the maze of buildings at the campus, a focal point in recent weeks of the citywide protests that first erupted in June, but no one was found.

“As the school has completed the search, the police security team will enter Polytechnic University tomorrow, as we need to process dangerous items and collect evidence,” District Commander Ho Yun-sing told reporters.

Any remaining protesters would be given medical treatment, he said.

The red-brick university on Kowloon peninsula was turned into a battleground in mid-November, when protesters barricaded themselves inside and clashed with riot police in a hail of petrol bombs, water cannon and tear gas. About 1,100 people were arrested last week, some while trying to escape.

Riot police sealed off the campus, setting up high plastic barricades and a fence on the perimeter.

The number of protesters has dwindled dramatically, with some managing to flee and others brought out. A lone woman found on Tuesday was “physically weak and emotionally unstable”, according to a statement from the university.

The university on Wednesday asked government departments for help removing “dangerous materials” from the site, which is littered with rotting waste and detritus of the siege, urging authorities to take a “humane” approach.

The city’s largest pro-establishment party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, urged authorities to send medics to the site to take any remaining protesters to hospital.

LULL IN CLASHES

The Polytechnic University campus was the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city, blocking the nearby Cross-Harbour Tunnel linking Kowloon to Hong Kong Island and other arteries.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Beijing’s meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time.

The protesters had blocked the tunnel’s mouth, smashed toll booths, lit fires and cemented bricks to the road, but it was reopened early on Wednesday, and Hong Kong television showed a steady flow of vehicles passing through.

Hong Kong authorities hope that a lull in clashes over the weekend during local elections, where pro-democracy candidates scored a landslide victory, can translate into more calm after nearly six months of turmoil.

Hundreds of people are facing potential jail time in connection with the unrest.

Secretary for Security John Lee said on Wednesday police had arrested more than 5,800 people since June, the numbers increasing exponentially in October and November, and had charged 923.

Smaller scale protests continued on Wednesday, as crowds in the central business district took to the streets around noon.

‘THANKSGIVING PROTEST’

Reuters also reported that China’s leaders had set up a crisis command center in the Chinese tech hub of Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong, to deal with protests that have become the biggest populist challenge since China’s leader Xi Jinping came to power in 2012.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Office in Hong Kong called the report “false”, without elaborating, in a statement posted on its website Tuesday. “No matter how the situation in Hong Kong changes, the Chinese government’s determination to safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests is unwavering,” it said.

Despite the euphoria among protesters over the electoral victory, in which democracy advocates swept around 86 percent of the 452 district council seats, fresh demonstrations were planned for the weekend, including a march to protest against the use of tear gas on “children”.

A “Thanksgiving” protest, in appreciation of the U.S Congress passing legislation supporting protesters, is scheduled for Thursday, the date of the U.S. holiday.

The city-wide elections drew a record turnout and were seen as a vote of no-confidence in Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, Carrie Lam, over her handling of the financial hub’s worst crisis in decades.

One Hong Kong newspaper, Sing Pao, published a front-page spread for the second successive day calling for Lam’s resignation. “Hong Kong people had enough, Carrie Lam quit,” it read.

(Reporting by Jessie Pang, Clare Jim, Noah Sin and James Pomfret; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Poppy McPherson; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore and Alex Richardson)

Landslide democratic win puts pressure on leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong

Landslide democratic win puts pressure on leader of Chinese-ruled Hong Kong
By Twinnie Siu and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong’s leader pledged to listen to public opinion on Monday and referred to deep-seated problems in society after a landslide election victory by opponents of Chinese rule amid months of sometimes violent pro-democracy unrest.

Democratic candidates secured almost 90% of 452 district council seats in Sunday’s poll, held during a rare weekend lull in clashes with police, despite a strongly resourced and mobilized pro-establishment opposition.

Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the government respected the results and wished “the peaceful, safe and orderly situation to continue”.

“Quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” Lam said.

The government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, her statement said.

The elections saw record turnout after six months of protests and brought upset wins for democrats against heavyweight pro-Beijing opponents, greeted in some voting centers by chants of “Liberate Hong Kong” and “Revolution Now”.

While district councils deal with local issues such as transport, their members also form part of the election committee for Hong Kong’s chief executive. This could give them some influence over the next vote in 2022, although they only account for 117 of its 1,200 members.

Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai described the election as the first step in the long way to full democracy. “This district election shows that the central government needs to face the demands of a democratic system,” he said.

Along with universal suffrage, the protesters’ demands include an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality.

The voting ended with no major disruptions across the city of 7.4 million people on a day that saw massive, though orderly, queues form outside voting centers.

“This is the power of democracy. This is a democratic tsunami,” said Tommy Cheung, a former student protest leader who won a seat in the Yuen Long district close to China’s border.

FIRST STEP?

When asked if the chief executive should consider her position in light of the election results, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing “firmly supports” Lam’s leadership.

Hong Kong’s most urgent task was to restore order and stop the violence, Geng told a daily press briefing.

In self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, the Presidential Office expressed “great admiration and support” for the election result.

“The election fully demonstrates Hong Kong people’s absolute will to pursue freedom and democracy,” it said.

The number of seats held by the pro-democracy camp more than quadrupled and turnout, at 71%, was almost double the number in the previous polls four years ago.

Starry Lee, chairwoman of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, apologized for her party’s performance.

“For this major defeat, we do not want to find any excuses and reasons,” said Lee. She said the party rejected her offer to resign earlier on Monday.

‘PATH OF STRUGGLE’

Former student leader Lester Shum, who won a seat, said district councils were just one path to democracy. “In future, we must find other paths of struggle to keep fighting,” he said.

China’s state-run Xinhua news agency announced the completion of the election, but did not say which side had won.

“Rioters, in concert with external forces, have continuously committed and escalated violence, resulting in social and political confrontation,” it said. “…Months of social unrest have seriously disrupted the electoral process.”

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula for the former British colony put in place when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.

Britain said it welcomed Lam’s promise to “seriously reflect” on the result.

Jimmy Sham, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organized some of the anti-government rallies, won his electoral contest, while some pro-Beijing heavyweights, such as Junius Ho, a hate-figure among protesters for his abrasive comments, lost.

Ho described the outcome on Facebook as “an unusual result”.

Sham and other democrats entered the Polytechnic University to urge police to end a standoff and allow humanitarian assistance to those few protesters trapped inside in now filthy conditions, with fears rising about their physical and emotional health.

The university is guarded round the clock by riot police, after around 1,100 were arrested last week. Some were held during escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motor-bikes, with protesters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

There was a small standoff between police and protesters outside the campus on Monday evening, with many shouting “come out” and hurling abuse at police.

The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest populist challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Kate Lamb, Sarah Wu and Josh Smith in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei and Vincent Lee and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing; Writing by James Pomfret, Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore and Philippa Fletcher)

China envoy warns of ‘very bad damage’ if Canada follows U.S. lead on Hong Kong

OTTAWA (Reuters) – China’s new ambassador to Canada on Friday warned Ottawa not to follow the U.S. lead and formally back protesters in Hong Kong, saying such a move would cause “very bad damage” to already poor ties with Beijing.

Canada, which has been locked in a trade and diplomatic dispute with China, has repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of its 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, hit by five months of mass demonstrations for more democracy and autonomy.

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back the protesters and send a warning to China about human rights.

“If somebody here really tries to … have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous,” said Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu, speaking in English.

“If anything happens like this it will certainly have a very bad damage on our bilateral relationship and that is not in the interests of Canada,” he told a news conference in the embassy. He formally presented his credentials on Nov 1.

The uncompromising tone of his message indicated that while the ambassador may have changed, China’s approach has not.

Cong repeated Beijing’s demand that Canada immediately release Huawei Technologies Co Ltd Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou, who is out on bail after Canadian police detained her on a U.S. arrest warrant last December.

“This incident has led to the severe difficulties the two countries are facing nowadays,” said Cong.

Shortly after Meng’s arrest, China picked up two Canadian citizens on state secret charges, and has since blocked imports of canola seed from Canada.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, asked on Wednesday what additional measures Canada would take to protect its citizens in Hong Kong, said “we will continue to call for de-escalation and an end to violence” while urging dialogue.

If Canada wanted to protect its citizens, it should ask “those rioters to stop the violence, otherwise those Canadians living in Hong Kong, how can they be safe?” Cong said.

(Reporting by David Ljunggren; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Protesters left on besieged HK campus weigh their options

By Kate Lamb and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – At least eight protesters who had been holding out at a trashed Hong Kong university surrendered on Friday, while others searched for escape routes past riot police who surrounded the campus but said there was no deadline for ending the standoff.

The siege at the Polytechnic University on the Kowloon peninsula appeared to be nearing an end with the number of protesters dwindling to a handful, days after some of the worst violence since anti-government demonstrations escalated in June.

Police chief Chris Tang, who took up the post this week, urged those remaining inside to come out.

“I believe people inside the campus do not want their parents, friends … to worry about them,” Tang told reporters.

Those who remain say they want to avoid being arrested for rioting or on other charges, so hope to find some way to slip past the police or hide.

Sitting in the largely deserted campus, one holdout described how his girlfriend had pleaded with him to surrender to the police.

He had refused, he said, telling her she might as well find another partner because he would likely go to jail.

“A man has to abandon everything otherwise it’s impossible to take part in a revolution,” the protester told Reuters.

Another man sitting nearby agreed, saying it was just as well he was divorced because a “man with family cannot make it to here.”

The campus was so quiet on Friday you could hear the chants of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers exercising on their nearby base.

Many levels of the buildings look like abandoned rebel hideouts strewn with remains — rucksacks, masks, water bottles, cigarette butts, with security cameras smashed throughout. Lockers were stuffed with gas masks and black clothes, and a samurai sword lay on the ground where it was abandoned.

“We are feeling a little tired. All of us feel tired but we will not give up trying to get out,” said a 23-year-old demonstrator who gave his name as Shiba as he ate noodles in the protesters’ canteen.

A Reuters reporter saw six black-clad protesters holding hands walk towards police lines, while a first aid worker said two more surrendered later.

The protests snowballed from June after years of resentment over what many residents see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997.

Protesters, who have thrown fire bombs and rocks and fired bows and arrows at police, are calling for full democracy and an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, among other demands.

Police have responded to the attacks with rubber bullets, tear gas, water cannon and occasional live rounds but say they have acted with restraint in life-threatening situations.

On Friday Hong Kong’s High Court said it would temporarily suspend its ruling that found a controversial law banning protesters from wearing face masks is unconstitutional.

The court said it would suspend its ruling for seven days while appeals processes proceeded.

Beijing has said it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong is governed. It denies meddling in its affairs and accuses foreign governments, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

One older protester, who estimated only about 30 demonstrators remained, said some had given up looking for escape routes and were now making new weapons to protect themselves in case police stormed the campus.

There have been two days and nights of relative calm in the city ahead of district council elections that are due to take place on Sunday.

Tang said police would adopt a “high-profile” presence on Sunday and he appealed to protesters to refrain from violence so people feel safe to vote.

(Reporting by Clare Jim, Alun John, Kate Lamb, Jessie Pang and Felix Tam; Writing by By Anne Marie Roantree, Marius Zaharia, Nick Macfie and Josh Smith; Editing by Paul Tait, Robert Birsel and Philippa Fletcher)

U.S. House passes Hong Kong rights bills, Trump expected to sign

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday passed two bills to back protesters in Hong Kong and send a warning to China about human rights, with President Donald Trump expected to sign them into law, despite delicate trade talks with Beijing.

The House sent the bills to the White House after voting 417 to 1 for the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” which the Senate passed unanimously on Tuesday. Strong support had been expected after the House passed a similar bill last month.

The measure, which has angered Beijing, would require the State Department to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for the special U.S. trading consideration that helped it become a world financial center.

It also would provide for sanctions against officials responsible for human rights violations in the Chinese-ruled city.

Demonstrators have protested for more than five months in the streets of Hong Kong, amid increasing violence and fears that Beijing will ratchet up its response to stop the civil disobedience.

The protesters are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to Hong Kong when Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Republican Senator Marco Rubio was a main sponsor of the Senate-passed bill, which was co-sponsored by Republican Senator Jim Risch and Democratic Senators Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin.

The House passed, by 417 to zero, a second bill, which the Senate also approved unanimously on Tuesday, to ban the export of certain crowd-control munitions to Hong Kong police forces. That measure bans the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns.

President Trump has 10 days, excluding Sundays, to sign a bill passed by Congress, unless he opts to use his veto.

A person familiar with the matter said the president intended to sign the bills into law, not veto them.

Vetoes would have been difficult to sustain, since the measures passed both the Republican-controlled Senate and Democratic-controlled House with almost no objections.

A two-thirds majority would be required in both the Senate and House to override a veto.

The Chinese embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

In Beijing on Wednesday, China condemned the legislation’s passage, and vowed strong countermeasures to safeguard its sovereignty and security.

China’s foreign ministry said this month that China had lodged “stern representations” with the United States about the legislation and urged that it not be passed into law, saying it would not only harm Chinese interests and China-U.S. relations, but the United States’ own interests too.

It said China would “inevitably take vigorous measures to firmly respond, to staunchly safeguard our sovereignty, security and development interests.”

Trump prompted questions about his commitment to protecting freedoms in Hong Kong when he referred in August to its mass street protests as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Trump has since called on China to handle the issue humanely, while warning that if anything bad happened in Hong Kong, it could be bad for talks to end a trade war between the world’s two largest economies.

On Thursday, the ruling Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, the People’s Daily, urged the United States to “rein in the horse at the edge of the precipice” and stop interfering in Hong Kong matters and China’s internal affairs.

“If the U.S. side obstinately clings to its course, the Chinese side will inevitably adopt forceful measures to take resolute revenge, and all consequences will be borne by the United States,” it said in a front-page editorial.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and David Brunnstrom; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Clarence Fernandez)

Hong Kong students’ sewer escape thwarted

By Donny Kwok and Clare Baldwin

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Some anti-government protesters trapped inside a Hong Kong university on Wednesday tried to flee through the sewers, where one student said she saw snakes, but firemen prevented further escape bids by blocking a manhole into the system.

Reuters witnesses said fewer than 100 protesters remained inside the Polytechnic University, ring-fenced 24 hours a day by riot police, after more than 1,000 were arrested from late on Monday.

Some surrendered while others were held during escape attempts that included trying to clamber down ropes to waiting motorbikes on Monday night, with protesters throwing petrol bombs and police responding with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannon.

The streets were quiet on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Protesters, wearing waterproof boots and carrying torches, resurfaced inside the campus after unsuccessfully probing the sewers – where fast-rising water levels are also a hazard – for a way out during the night.

Police said six people were arrested on Wednesday – four while removing a manhole cover outside the campus and two climbing out.

Firefighters, whom the students let on to the campus, were in place to stop any further attempts, blocking the only feasible entrance into the sewer system in an underground car park on campus.

“The sewer was very smelly, with many cockroaches, many snakes. Every step was very, very painful,” said Bowie, 21, a student at Hong Kong University who was forced to turn back.

“I’d never thought that one day I would need to hide in a sewer or escape through sewers to survive.”

The university on the Kowloon peninsula is the last of five that protesters had occupied to use as bases from which to disrupt the city over the past 10 days, blocking the central Cross-Harbour Tunnel and other arteries.

“This mission is a loss,” said Brutus, 21, who became a protest frontliner in August. He and his girlfriend were taking a break to eat an orange, a Snickers bar and hard boiled eggs in one of the classrooms.

“After all of the things that happened, I don’t think protesters taking control of the universities was a good option. We don’t have gear like the police. We are not well-organized like the police.”

Brutus said he also felt bad about damage to the university. Breaking the CCTV cameras was fine, he said, because that was about protecting people. But other damage was wrong – especially to the library.

“We are here to learn. Now we can’t pass those books to the students coming in next year. That is a great loss.”

He and his girlfriend left to look for a way to escape.

ROTTEN FOOD

Police said nearly 800 people had left the campus peacefully by late on Tuesday and they would be investigated, including nearly 300 under the age of 18. At least 24 were seen walking out on Wednesday.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam has called for a humane end to a siege that saw the most intense clashes since the protests escalated more than five months ago.

Police said they had no plans to storm the campus, now wrecked and daubed with graffiti, parts of it stinking of petrol used to make Molotov cocktails and rotten food, with broken glass everywhere. “Ideas are bulletproof,” was spray-painted in a few places.

Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in freedoms promised to Hong Kong when the then British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997. They say they are responding to excessive use of force by police.

The unrest marks the most serious popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Protesters on the campus still have vast stocks of petrol bombs, bows and arrows and other makeshift weapons after a weekend of fiery clashes.

Police tightened security around the university, making the streets safe enough for a late Tuesday visit by the force’s new commissioner, Chris Tang, on his first day on the job.

Tang is under pressure to restore police morale as well as public confidence in a force that has come in for widespread criticism for increasingly violent tactics. Police deny using excessive force.

Police have made more than 5,000 arrests in connection with the protests since June.

The number of criminal damage cases reported between June and September was up 29.6% on the same period last year, Commerce Secretary Edward Yau said in a written statement. Arson cases were up 57.4%.

Chinese leaders say they are committed to Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” formula for autonomy and have accused foreign countries, including Britain and the United States, of stirring up trouble.

Ties between China and those two countries came under strain over Hong Kong on Wednesday.

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab condemned China’s treatment of Simon Cheng, a former employee of Britain’s Hong Kong consulate, who said secret police beat him seeking information about the protest movement.

“We were shocked and appalled by the mistreatment he suffered while in Chinese detention, which amounts to torture,” Raab said.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said Cheng had been detained for 15 days and had admitted his offences. All of his legal rights were safeguarded, the spokesman said.

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act”, which would require the secretary of state to certify at least once a year that Hong Kong retains enough autonomy to qualify for special U.S. trading consideration and would impose sanctions against officials responsible for rights violations.

China summoned a representative of the U.S. embassy in Beijing over the legislation and demanded that the United States stop meddling, the foreign ministry said.

The Hong Kong government expressed “deep regret” over the bill.

(Reporting by Marius Zaharia, Jessie Pang, Aleks Solum, Joseph Campbell, T^om Peter, Twinnie Siu, Clare Jim, Donny Kwok, Clare Baldwin and Julie Zhu; Writing by Tony Munroe and Nick Macfie; Editing by Giles Elgood)