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(Patrick Semansky/AP; Yuri Kochetkov/Pool/EPE/EFE; Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty)

The battle over Hong Kong’s proposed extradition law intensified on Wednesday. The decision of the city government’s legislature to postpone debate on the measure did little to calm a heated protest movement that has mobilized on a scale not seen for half a decade. In the heart of Asia’s financial capital, demonstrators once more occupied central thoroughfares, squaring off against riot police who fired tear gas and rubber bullets. More than 70 people were injured in the clashes, according to local news reports.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, widely viewed as a proxy for China’s political leadership, condemned the protesters for “organizing a riot” and said her government still plans on pushing through the legislation. The Legislative Council of Hong Kong is dominated by pro-Beijing forces.

The protesters, though, show no sign of backing down. They see the invisible hand of Beijing behind the law and fear China will use it to further squeeze Hong Kong’s civil liberties, arrest dissidents and chill dissent. Chinese authorities in recent years have exerted unprecedented control over Hong Kong’s politics, including issuing a ruling in 2016 that led to the expulsion of six pro-democracy lawmakers from Hong Kong’s legislature.

For ordinary Hong Kongers — and especially a young, galvanized generation of protesters — the current fight is about much more than just one bill. “We are trying to tell the government that the more they suppress us, the more we will fight back,” Justin Tang, a 25-year-old protester, told my colleagues. “Being the last city in China that is able to do that, we are going to hold on to that right.”

The scale of confrontation returns the international spotlight to Hong Kong. British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged the former colony’s administration to “pause and reflect” over its course of action. Morgan Ortagus, a spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said people in Hong Kong “don’t like being subjugated” by Beijing.

Chinese officials have rebuffed any Western censure into what they deem an internal matter. Hu Xijin, editor in chief of Global Times, a strident English-language state mouthpiece, tweeted that the scenes of unrest on Wednesday looked like a “Color Revolution,” hinting that the West was fomenting “disturbance” in the city.

President Trump, for his part, seemed to dismiss the gravity of the moment. “I hope it all works out for China and for Hong Kong,” he said Wednesday while meeting Polish President Andrzej Duda at the White House. “I’m sure they’ll be able to work it out.”

Human rights in China have never featured prominently in Trump’s rhetoric. He has yet to speak publicly about China’s mass incarceration of more than 1 million Uighur Muslims and other minority groups in so-called reeducation camps in the restive region of Xinjiang. Nor did he this week echo his administration’s comments on the “fundamental rights” of Hong Kongers.

His equivocating remarks came just a day after Trump indicated he was “holding up” a trade deal with China, and two days after Trump threatened to raise tariffs on Chinese goods if President Xi Jinping didn’t meet with him in Osaka, Japan, during the Group of 20 summit later this month.

The unrest in Hong Kong only adds to the tensions building around that summit. Few American or Chinese observers expect either party to make significant concessions. These would include the Trump administration easing restrictions on Chinese tech giant Huawei, which the United States essentially has barred from doing business with U.S. firms. There’s a chance the presidents won’t even talk in Japan. Though he is the leader of an authoritarian one-party state, Xi is still sensitive to nationalist sentiment at home and won’t want to be seen caving to Trump’s pressure.

“Trump’s stance that he is unlikely to make any concessions is very clear. So, China should be very cautious when arranging a bilateral meeting with him,” Liu Weidong, a China-U.S. affairs expert from the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said to the South China Morning Post.

Adding to the impasse are a chorus of voices in Washington demanding tough action in defense of Hong Kong’s political freedoms. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said the extradition bill “chillingly showcases Beijing’s brazen willingness to trample over the law to silence dissent and stifle the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.” She added in a statement that, if the bill passed, Congress would have “no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong is ‘sufficiently autonomous’ under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” referring to the degree to which Hong Kong maintains a separate political, legal and economic system from China. The special status is recognized by foreign governments and underpins their dealings with the territory.

Rumors swirled this week of the possibility of the United States repealing its recognition of that status as a way of punishing Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government and China.

“Diplomats have played down the suggestion that the U.S., or other Western governments, will revoke Hong Kong’s special status on a wholesale basis,” said Ben Bland, director of the Southeast Asia Project at the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank. “Such a move would punish the Chinese state-owned companies, tycoons and officials who use Hong Kong as an entry point to the global financial system. It would also undermine the political and economic interests of foreign governments and businesses in Hong Kong, as well as punish local citizens who would suffer from the inevitable financial fallout.”

Yet that’s precisely the sort of wanton havoc a politician such as Trump may consider unleashing. “As Chinese officials have discovered over the past year, nothing is sacred to the U.S. president when it comes to collecting chips that he thinks he can cash in during the course of a negotiation,” wrote Tom Mitchell, the Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times. “If anyone is willing to turn the screws on Hong Kong as they are now being turned on Huawei, it is Trump.”

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