HONG KONG – Chanting “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” pro-democracy activists on Thursday urged the world to follow U.S. footsteps in supporting human rights in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory, as police teams began a cleanup of a university earlier occupied by demonstrators.
Waving U.S. flags, thousands crowded a public square in central Hong Kong for a night “Thanksgiving” rally to thank the United States for passing two Hong Kong laws and vowed to “march on” with their fight, now entering its sixth month.
Prominent activist Joshua Wong, who was among those who lobbied for the new U.S. laws, said it was remarkable that human rights had triumphed over crucial U.S.-China trade talks. Wong told the rally the next aim is to expand global support by getting Britain and other Western nations to follow suit.
One of the U.S. laws, which were signed by President Donald Trump on Wednesday, requires an annual review of the special trade status for Asia’s top financial hub and prescribes sanctions on Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials found guilty of human rights abuses. The other bans the export of certain nonlethal munitions to Hong Kong police.
A student representative warned the crowd that the U.S. laws, which came days after a victory by pro-democracy candidates in local elections, was “not an end-game” because protesters’ demands, including full democracy and an independent inquiry into police actions, have not been met.
Rally organizer Ventus Lau urged the U.S. to swiftly implement the laws and penalize police and government officials who suppressed democracy. Some singled out the city’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, for her handling of the crisis.
Earlier, dozens of office workers and activists chanted “This is what democracy looks like” and other slogans during a daily lunchtime rally downtown. 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.
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.
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.
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 and gather evidence of “malicious” damage to campus facilities.
Police said they removed 3,801 gasoline bombs and 558 bottles of chemicals including ones that could be used to make explosives. Police said they hope to complete the operation by Friday.
The university has been ringed by police for 11 days as protesters retreated into the campus after blocking a major tunnel and setting toll booths on fire during clashes with police. Some 1,100 protesters have left or have been arrested.
Faculty search teams found a young woman in weak condition on Tuesday. Hours before the cleanup, a masked protester emerged from hiding and told reporters that fewer than 20 others still holed up inside opposed the police operation. But no one was found Thursday.
Associated Press video journalists Katie Tam and Joeal Calupitan contributed to this report.