HONG KONG — Protesters gathered in the tens of thousands in central Hong Kong on Monday night, pleading with American lawmakers for the second time to pass legislation that supports the territory’s democratic aspirations and punishes those who try to curtail it.

The demonstration, the first approved by authorities since the imposition of an anti-mask ban at all public gatherings, was marked by the sense of anguish that has gripped the movement after months of protesting. Instead of offering any further concessions, the government has instead expanded police powers and imposed more restrictions. 

As the crackdown on protests intensifies — with the arrest of more than 2,500, including 201 arrested in smaller-scale protests over the weekend — some see foreign pressure as the best hope for securing a democratic future for Hong Kong. 

“Our citizens do not have any kind of power to fight against the government,” said Crystal Yeung, 23, standing among thousands of protesters spilling out onto roads from a small square that couldn’t contain the rally. “We are relying on the U.S. to punish those who are trying to breach the Hong Kong law.”

Protesters are specifically hoping for the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a piece of legislation that has broad bipartisan support. The bill, which will require the annual review of the special treatment afforded by Washington to Hong Kong and allow sanctions on those found to be “suppressing basic freedoms,” was fast-tracked through the House and could be discussed as soon as this week. In the Senate, it remains in committee. 

A large demonstration was first held in September in support of the bill, but protest organizers want to keep the pressure on as it makes its way through the congressional process. 

“The bill is necessary in order to give pressure on Chinese and Hong Kong government,” said Ventus Lau, one of the organizers of Monday’s demonstration. “We have to do everything possible to push for a quick passing of the law.”

The international push is among several strategies employed by protesters as the Hong Kong government digs in its heels against any further concession to the movement. Protests began in June over a bill that would allow extraditions to mainland China, but have since swelled into a sustained effort at securing direct elections for Hong Kong and against increasingly harsh police tactics. Communities are divided, businesses are suffering and violence is increasing as the dissent drags on. 

Several Republican senators have recently visited Hong Kong, including Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) to observe the protests and speak to pro-democracy activists. Both are sponsors of the Human Rights and Democracy Act. 

The bill “has come up in every single meeting” with pro-democracy activists in the city, said Hawley, speaking in Hong Kong to a small group of reporters. He said the legislation could be voted on in the House as early as this week. “It is obviously a very felt and urgent concern here in the city, and rightly so.” 

Prominent activist Joshua Wong, speaking at the rally, noted that when the bill was first floated, only a handful backed it. Today, more than 60 lawmakers have supported the legislation. 

“We owe it all to the blood and sweat spared by the front-line protesters and the peaceful protesters,” Wong said, before leading the group into a cheer of “Pass the act!” Chants were so loud they could be heard miles from the rally’s gathering point. 

Yet condemnation from American lawmakers and the pro-democracy movement’s appeal to the Western world appears to be fueling Beijing’s fears that Hong Kong’s protests are the product of foreign meddling designed to weaken China. Speaking Sunday in Nepal, Chinese President Xi Jinping said any attempt “to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones.”

“And any external forces backing such attempts to divide China will be deemed by the Chinese people as pipe-dreaming!” he added. 

Michael Tien, a pro-Beijing lawmaker who has supported pro-democracy positions like an independent inquiry into the police, says hawkish pro-establishment conservatives are feeding these theories of foreign interference to mainland Chinese authorities. 

“Beijing is convinced,” he said. “You are talking about Communist China. The one thing they hate is their own people going to a foreign government asking for help, and particularly this foreign government, who is trying to nail China.” 

President Trump has appeared to change his tone on Hong Kong several times in recent months. At the United Nations, he made strong comments in defense of the city’s promised autonomy, saying the world “fully expects” Beijing will protect “Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life.” 

Speaking to reporters last week after a meeting with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, however, Trump said the situation in Hong Kong is “going to take care of itself” and has “de-escalated.”

Hawley said the situation in Hong Kong is an “urgent, pressing concern” and would share his experiences with Trump. 

On Sunday, protests broke out in several areas of the city, a new tactic that sought to scatter the police force, allow demonstrators to stick to local neighborhoods they are most familiar with and avoid transit shutdowns. Numbers, however, were much smaller than in past rallies, and police were able to make a large number of arrests compared with the size of the demonstrating crowd. 

Protester violence has also increased, leaving 12 officers wounded, including one who was cut in the back of his neck by a sharp object. What appeared to be a homemade bomb was set off near a police car, and a police station in Mong Kok was hit by over a dozen petrol bombs. 

Police said 201 protesters between the ages of 14 to 62 were arrested between Friday and Sunday. 

“I must reiterate that these people doing violent acts are not protesters. They are indeed rioters and criminals that destroy our rule of law,” said Tang Ping-keung, the police deputy commissioner in charge of operations. “Whatever causes they claim they’re fighting for can never justify such triad-like [criminal] behavior. If you still tolerate such acts, you are simply inciting them to escalate their violence.”

Yeung, who was attending the rally with her boyfriend, added that even without any American action on the bill, Hong Kong’s fight will go on. Several more rallies are planned over the coming weeks. 

“Hong Kong people must rely on our own power, our unity to fight against the government,” she said. “We will keep fighting anyway.”

Tiffany Liang contributed to this report.