Leaders of Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement on Tuesday appealed directly to US lawmakers to exert pressure on Beijing, warning that an erosion of the city's special status would embolden China's leaders around the world.
In an appearance likely to infuriate Beijing, young people at the forefront of Hong Kong's mass protests testified before a congressional commission in support of US legislation aimed at defending Hong Kongers' civil rights.
"This is not a plea for so-called 'foreign interference,' nor for Hong Kong independence," said Cantopop star Denise Ho, whose music has been banned in mainland China for her activism.
"This is a plea for universal human rights. This is a plea for democracy. This is a plea for the freedom to choose," she said.
Ho said China's clampdown in Hong Kong marked a test for all who believe in a world that is "free, open and civil."
Millions have taken to the streets of Hong Kong, initially against a now-dropped bid by its leaders to allow extraditions to the mainland. The movement has expanded into a broader pro-democracy push in the semi-autonomous financial hub where activists say freedom has been eroding.
"If Hong Kong falls, it would easily become the springboard for the totalitarian regime of China to push its rules and priorities overseas, utilizing its economic powers to conform others to their communist values," she said.
- Can't 'have it both ways' -
The hearing examined legislation that would end Hong Kong's special trading status with the United States unless the State Department each year certifies that the city's authorities are respecting human rights and rule of law.
"Beijing shouldn't have it both ways, reaping all the economic benefits of Hong Kong's standing in the world while eradicating our sociopolitical identity," said 22-year-old Joshua Wong, one of the most prominent figures in an otherwise leaderless and faceless movement.
"As I speak, Hong Kong is standing at a critical juncture. The stakes have never been higher," he said.
He warned that Chinese President Xi Jinping may take harsher action before next month's 70th anniversary of communist China.
"Sending in the tanks remains irrational, though not impossible," Wong said.
He also said that Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's pro-Beijing chief executive, could take draconian measures that include shutting down the internet or the public transportation system.
Wong warned that a baby born today would be 28 in 2047 -- the date when China's promise with colonial ruler Britain to allow "one country, two systems" expires.
"That deadline is closer to us than it appears; there's no return," Wong said.
"I hope that historians will celebrate the United States Congress for having stood on the side of Hong Kongers, the side of human rights and democracy," he said.
- Congress in lead -
Hong Kong protesters have rallied outside the US consulate in a bid to gain international support.
President Donald Trump's administration, however, has taken a low profile, with some analysts saying that a vocal US stance could feed Beijing's attempts to brand the protesters as foreign agitators.
Beijing and Lam have already accused the United States of interference and China summoned Germany's ambassador after Wong visited the European power.
"Blaming the US government -- and this Congress -- for the protests is cowardly propaganda and not befitting a nation with aspirations of global leadership," Representative Chris Smith said at the hearing.
The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which enjoys wide support in Congress, would also open the way for sanctions on anyone involved in eroding Hong Kong's status.
A related bill under consideration would ban the sale of tear gas, rubber bullets and other crowd control equipment to the Hong Kong police after concerns that Western imports abetted their crackdown.
Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican ally of Trump, hailed the Hong Kong protests as "one of the greatest people-power movements we have witnessed in recent memory."
"It is my belief that it's long overdue for the United States and the free world to respond," said Rubio, co-chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China which held the hearing.
Representative Jim McGovern, a liberal Democrat who also heads the commission, said that the protesters have "inspired the world."
"Thank you for your courage and bravery. We stand in solidarity with you," he told them.