WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday called for all sides to exercise restraint in the escalating Hong Kong conflict, and said the territory’s government should start an independent investigation into incidents during the half-year of pro-democracy protests. That inquiry presumably would include reviewing accusations of police misconduct.
“The United States is gravely concerned by the deepening political unrest and violence in Hong Kong, including the standoffs between protesters and police at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and other campuses,” Mr. Pompeo said at a news conference in Washington. “We have repeatedly called for restraint from all parties in Hong Kong.”
“The Hong Kong government bears primary responsibility,” he said, adding that the conflict could not be resolved by law enforcement alone.
He called for the government to “take clear steps to address public concerns,” and stressed that Carrie Lam, the territory’s chief executive, should “promote accountability” by putting in place an independent investigation.
Mr. Pompeo’s remarks were the strongest so far by a senior Trump administration official during an escalation in violence in Hong Kong that began on Nov. 11, when protesters tried to disrupt traffic across the city on a workday but were met by an aggressive police presence.
A traffic policeman shot a young unarmed protester, and activists set on a fire a man who had confronted them. The police also breached university campuses, considered a last refuge of the activists’, which ignited battles at the schools. Early Tuesday in Hong Kong, the police were still trying to arrest hundreds of protesters who had occupied Hong Kong Polytechnic University.
Protesters have been calling for months for an independent inquiry into what they call abuses against activists and bystanders by police officers. As tensions have grown, the police have increasingly used tear gas, rubber bullets, pepper spray and water cannons loaded with chemicals that cause intense pain on contact with skin. The police have deployed all of those in its siege of Polytechnic University, which began Saturday night.
At the news conference on Monday, Mr. Pompeo said that “the Chinese Communist Party must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people,” as enshrined in an agreement that London and Beijing made before Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997. The agreement says China will allow Hong Kong to maintain a semiautonomous political and legal system for 50 years from the handover, under a governance model commonly called “one country, two systems.”
On the Senate floor on Monday, Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the majority leader, said leaders in Beijing and Hong Kong must “de-escalate.” He added he was working to try to bring the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act to a floor vote.
The bill, which passed the House by unanimous consent, would mandate the executive branch to impose sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who carry out human rights abuses and review annually the favorable trade status that Washington grants Hong Kong. Mr. McConnell has been criticized for delaying a floor vote on the bill.
He said Monday that the administration already had “significant tools” it could use to support Hong Kong protesters, and urged President Trump to be more vocal on Hong Kong.
“I would encourage this president, who has seen Chinese behavior for what it is, with clarity that others have lacked, not to shy away from speaking out on Hong Kong himself,” Mr. McConnell said. “The world should hear from him directly that the United States stands with these brave men and women.”
Mr. Trump rarely talks about human rights, and he has not consistently made strong remarks on Hong Kong. In June, he told China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, that he would refrain from speaking publicly on Hong Kong as long as negotiations to settle a trade war between Washington and Beijing were progressing. His most forceful remarks on Hong Kong were in a speech in September in front of the United Nations General Assembly; he spoke of the conflict in the territory while praising the authoritarian Mr. Xi.
Mr. McConnell on Monday also spoke of the threat to Muslim ethnic minority groups in the Xinjiang region of northwest China by pointing to a New York Times report published on Saturday of 403 pages of leaked Communist Party documents on the system of internment camps there. The camps have been used to hold at least one million Muslims, and the documents show Mr. Xi set the policy starting in 2014.
Mr. McConnell said the documents were “a handbook for this Orwellian campaign to effectively erase a religious and ethnic minority in a region that is supposed to be legally distinct from the rest of China.” He added that the campaign was “chilling” and “systematic.”
Because of the trade talks, Mr. Trump has held back from a policy to impose sanctions on Chinese officials for the Xinjiang abuses.