HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam scrapped a meeting with U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, the highest profile U.S. politician to visit the city since anti-government protests broke out more than four months ago, the senator said on Saturday.
Lam’s office had requested that the afternoon meeting be completely confidential and that Cruz refrain from speaking with the media about it, Cruz told journalists in Hong Kong.
“She seems to misunderstand how free speech operates, and also how freedom of the press operates,” said Cruz, a Republican senator from Texas and a vocal critic of China who was stopping in Hong Kong for two days as part of a regional tour.
“Ms. Lam’s cancelling the meeting is not a sign of strength. It’s a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of fear of the protesters in the streets of Hong Kong.”
Responding to a request for details about the scheduled meeting, Lam’s office said in an email: “The Chief Executive did not meet with the said U.S. Senator.”
For months Hong Kong has been paralyzed by unprecedented protests calling for democracy and against police brutality. The former British colony was returned to China in 1997 and promised broad autonomy for 50 years under a “one country, two systems” model. But many in Hong Kong accuse Beijing of eroding its freedoms.
On Saturday, demonstrators took to the streets again, and the government said petrol bombs were thrown inside a Hong Kong metro station.
“I stand with the people of Hong Kong calling on the government of China to honor the promises it made to the world when it promised to maintain political freedom in Hong Kong,” said Cruz, who wore black to show support for the black-clad protest movement.
Asked if he condemned violence that has flared during the protests, Cruz said he advocated non-violent protest with the protesters and democracy activists he had met.
Cruz said he believed Chinese President Xi Jinping was “terrified of millions of people in Hong Kong, but even more than that, millions of people in China yearning to live free”.
Those fears were “magnified on the world stage” by China’s response to a tweet by a U.S. basketball executive supporting Hong Kong’s protesters, he said.
China has accused the West of stirring up anti-Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, and Chinese state media characterized the Houston Rockets general manager’s tweet as the latest example of meddling in China’s affairs.
“Had the Chinese government simply ignored the tweet, in all likelihood virtually nobody other than die-hard Rockets fans like me would have noticed the tweet,” he said.
“But President Xi’s fear and insecurity, combined with arrogance, a belief that economic blackmail could force the NBA (National Basketball Association) to be witting participants in global censorship, ended up ironically highlighting the message far more than it ever would have otherwise.”
There is “overwhelming bipartisan support” in the U.S. Congress for the people of Hong Kong, and Cruz said he was pressing for the Senate to take up and pass the Hong Kong Human Rights Act quickly.
Asked if it was more important now than ever to pass the act, he said: “Absolutely, yes.”
The act includes measures like annual reviews of the Chinese territory’s special economic status and the imposition of sanctions on those who undermine its autonomy.
“We should continue to look for tools to stand up for human rights and for democracy and to speak clearly against repression and torture and murder,” he said.
Reporting by John Ruwitch; Writing by Noah Sin; Editing by Frances Kerry and Raissa Kasolowsky