US President Donald Trump offered lukewarm support to Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters on Tuesday as Washington and Beijing enter a crucial stage of talks aimed at ending their year-long trade war.
"We're with them," Trump said of the protesters who contributed to the landslide victory for pro-democracy candidates in last weekend's local elections in Hong Kong, and have been battling police for months in street demonstrations.
But Trump immediately stressed his close ties to China's President Xi Jinping and his determination to secure a long-delayed resolution to the trade war between the world's two biggest economies.
"We're in the final throes of a very important deal, I guess you could say one of the most important deals in trade ever," Trump said.
"It's going very well but at the same time we want to see it go well in Hong Kong. I think it will. I think that President Xi can make that happen. I know him and I know he'd like to make it happen," Trump said.
But Beijing has not reacted to the overwhelming victory of the Pan-Democrats in Hong Kong's District Council elections on Sunday. Pro-democracy candidates won 347 of 452 seats, or 76,8 percent, while pro-Beijing forces got only a meagre 60 seats, losing control of 17 of Hong Kong's 18 districts.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who had earlier said that she "will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect," stresses that one of the demonstrators' five demands (the withdrawal of a controversial extradition bill) has already been granted. The protestors also want the release of all prisoners detained in relation to the demonstrations, an official recognition that the protests were not “riots”, the creation of a commission of inquiry into excessive police violence, and universal suffrage for elections of the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive.
On Tuesday Carrie Lam added that the Hong Kong government is setting up “an independent review committee to look at the causes of the social unrest,” but did not give any further details.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong South China Morning Post newspaper reports that police are prepared to use a court order to enter the Polytechnic University at the centre of the protests if they are prevented from going in by demonstrators.
Two teams of Polytechnic University staff failed to find several dozen hard-core protesters who are still holed up on the campus.
The university has been closed since 17 November. Police cordoned off the campus following pitched battles during which anti-government protesters set a police armoured vehicle on fire with a petrol bomb, officers firing volleys of tear gas in return.
Police have since detained most people leaving the campus, promising “fair treatment,” but by Wednesday not everyone had left, creating the current stalemate.