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Student activist Joshua Wong, democrat Martin Lee, bookseller Lam Wing-kee and former governor Chris Patten speak to panel on situation two decades after handover.

Hong Kong’s most high-profile democracy campaigners urged the US at a congressional panel late on Wednesday night to take a tougher stance against Beijing to protect the city’s freedoms.

The hearing drew a strong objection from the foreign affairs ministry’s commissioner in Hong Kong, who called it a blatant attempt to meddle in China’s internal affairs.

Student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung, one of the leaders of the Occupy protests, attended the session in Washington, along with veteran democrat Martin Lee Chu-ming and Lam Wing-kee, one of the Hong Kong booksellers who went missing and later turned up in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities.

The city’s last British governor, Chris Patten, joined them as the Congressional-Executive Commission on China was told that the “high degree of autonomy” promised to Hong Kong had decayed over two decades of Chinese rule.

The two-hour session was meant to help the commission assess Hong Kong’s situation, two decades after its handover to China.

Commission chair Senator Marco Rubio and two of his colleagues are also sponsoring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which seeks to, among other steps, punish officials in mainland China and Hong Kong whom the US government holds responsible for suppressing the city’s basic freedoms. Those officials could have their assets frozen in the United States or be barred from the country.

Wong urged US President Donald Trump’s administration to keep an eye on developments in Hong Kong. He cited recent court cases against pro-independence lawmakers as evidence that freedom of expression was under threat. He said US support was important for their fight for full democracy in Hong Kong.

Patten accused Beijing of having failed to honour its promises under the pre-handover agreement it signed with the UK and the city’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, to allow greater democracy in Hong Kong, and warned the US government that this could reflect the way China would deal with its other international obligations.

“If China can’t even handle the reasonable democratic aspirations as it promised to do for the people in Hong Kong, it doesn’t give one a huge amount of confidence about its ability to handle wider issues,” Patten said, speaking from London by video link.

Patten urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to take the opportunity of visiting Hong Kong for the 20th anniversary of the handover to reassure Hongkongers that Beijing would still honour its promises.

He also cited the city’s recent chief executive election as an example of Beijing’s “interference”, claiming that popular candidate John Tsang Chun-wah was not favoured by Beijing because he advocated dialogue with the opposition pan-democratic camp.

Lee shared Patten’s views and urged the US to raise its concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy with Beijing.

“President Xi Jinping must be told that the eyes of the world are on China, and on Hong Kong,” Lee said.

Referring to his run-in with mainland Chinese authorities over smuggling banned books across the border, Lam also urged the US Congress to keep up its interest in Hong Kong issues through such hearings that “would be beneficial to people like me”.

Rubio’s Hong Kong act dates back to late 2015 after the mysterious disappearances of Lam and his fellow booksellers at the Causeway Bay Books store caught international attention. But a subsequent partisan gridlock in Congress saw the bill temporarily taken off the legislative calendar. It is now back on the agenda.

A spokesman for the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said: “It is not a hearing to consider legislation, but to consider how best to proceed with legislation the [commission] chairs have already offered – the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.

“For that purpose, we are seeking information about the guaranteed freedoms and high degree of autonomy promised Hong Kong in international agreements.”

A spokesman for the foreign affairs ministry’s commissioner in Hong Kong expressed strong objection against the panel for what he called a blatant attempt to meddle in the affairs of China and Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong matters are purely China’s internal affairs. China opposes any foreign government interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any way,” he said. “The hearing confused wrong and right and [is a] blatant attempt with ulterior motives to interfere in Hong Kong affairs.”

The Chinese government is determined to uphold the “one country, two systems” principle as promised in the Basic Law, the spokesman added.

Veteran China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said such hearings would not exert any pressure on Beijing.

“[The congressional hearing] is just a political show for the US congressmen to tell the US voters that they are doing something,” Lau said. “The Trump administration is unlikely to make a fuss about pressuring Beijing because of Hong Kong affairs. Trump has already said that he wants to maintain a good relationship with Xi Jinping as Xi appears willing to help on North Korea.”

Pro-establishment legislator Gary Chan Hak-kan said: “From the people the US commission has invited to speak, you can already tell what kind of conclusion the US congressmen would get.

“[Wong, Lee, and Lam] would like to have the world believe that everything in Hong Kong has deteriorated after the handover – no democracy, no human rights, no freedoms. If Hong Kong’s situation was that bad, they might not have had the chance to go to the US to speak against the Beijing and Hong Kong governments.”

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