U.S. congressmen have said that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s tour of Hong Kong failed to present public sentiments, and warned of the danger to Hong Kong posed by Beijing’s crackdown on civil society.

“It is unfortunate that Xi Jinping will largely see a ‘Potemkin’ Hong Kong this week, kept away from the city’s vibrant pro-democracy sentiment and relish for free expression,” representative Christopher Smith, co-chair of the bi-partisan Congressional-Executive Commission on China, said on Thursday during Xi’s visit to Hong Kong.

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Xi Jinping and Peng Liyuan at the Hong Kong Airport. Photo: GovHK.

The remarks came after the Hong Kong police arrested 26 pro-democracy activists who staged a three-hour sit-in at the Golden Bauhinia statue on the eve of Xi’s visit. Police detained 17 of them for over 24 hours.

On the first day of Xi’s visit, police arrested a localist activist for carrying a box knife, and three men over graffiti bearing localist messages. The authorities have banned a pro-independence assembly planned for Friday evening.

The commission’s chair and senator Marco Rubio noted the heavy security measures in Hong Kong during Xi’s visit, and local media reports saying that police were ordered to remove any signs that risk “embarrassing” Xi.

The senator also called for the release of the Golden Bauhinia activists. His statement came before police released all of the activists in the early hours of Friday, more than 34 hours after their arrest.

Rubio said the committee would “closely watch” how the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities handle the 20th anniversary of the Handover, in particular government responses to peaceful protests during Xi’s visit.

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Joshua Wong at the sit-in protest. Photo: Dan Garrett.

See also: In Pictures: Fortress Hong Kong – City on security lockdown ahead of President Xi Jinping’s visit

“China’s assault on democratic institutions and human rights is a clear and present danger to the people of Hong Kong and to the city’s status as a free market, economic powerhouse, and hub for international trade and investment,” Rubio said.

He criticised Beijing for “systematically work[ing] to undermine its promise” of allowing Hong Kong to remain autonomous under the One Country, Two Systems policy.

“Looking ahead to the remaining 30 years of ‘one country, two systems,’ we cannot allow Hong Kong to go the way of Beijing’s failed authoritarianism,” he said.

‘Assault on civil society’

Christopher Smith also criticised the Xi administration for conducting “an extraordinary assault on civil society and the rule of law.” He said the assault has spilled over into Hong Kong through a number of recent controversies, such as Beijing’s “intervention” in Hong Kong’s legal system.

The congressman warned that Beijing’s suppression of Hong Kong’s freedoms would bear consequences for US-China relations.

Christopher Smith
Christopher Smith. Photo: Christopher Smith, via Facebook.

See also: ‘Xi Jinping, can you hear us?’ – Hong Kong democracy activists arrested after scaling monument

“Beijing increasingly views Hong Kong as a problem to be handled, not as a model for China’s future. This is a major concern for those of us who see the resilience of authoritarianism in China as a troubling indicator of unwanted conflict and competition,” he said.

“The preservation of Hong Kong’s autonomy will be a bellwether for U.S.-China relations, demonstrating Beijing’s commitment to fulfill international obligations.”

Smith said Hong Kong’s uniqueness is “rooted in the embrace of freedom, the rule of law, and democratic openness.” He reiterated the commission’s position that if Hong Kong “becomes just another Chinese city,” the US government will reassess whether Hong Kong warrants special status under US law.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong Commissioner for Economic and Trade Affairs to the US Clement Leung praised the One Country, Two Systems policy on Thursday for enabling Hong Kong to capture China’s economic opportunities, according to state news agency Xinhua.

The commission has spoken up against Beijing for Hong Kong on a number of occasions. In March, it expressed concern at Beijing’s “clear interference” in the chief executive election.

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Marco Rubio and Joshua Wong. Photo: Jeffrey Ngo.

Last month, Rubio and his committee colleagues heard the testimony of Hong Kong pro-democracy figures such as Joshua Wong and Martin Lee. Pro-Beijing newspapers launched a chorus of criticism against the activists for “inviting the US government to intervene in Hong Kong’s affairs.”

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Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.