US urges increased caution for Americans visiting Hong Kong

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Protesters in Hong Kong using laser pens Wednesday August 7.

Protesters in Hong Kong using laser pens Wednesday August 7. (AP photo)

HONG KONG (AP) — The U.S. government on Thursday stepped up its warnings to travelers to Hong Kong because of increasing violence surrounding pro-democracy protests in the Chinese city.

The State Department’s Level 2 travel advisory issued Thursday urges “increased caution in Hong Kong due to civil unrest” and tells travelers to avoid demonstrations and to “exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings or protests.”

The protests were sparked two months ago by proposed extradition legislation that could have seen suspects sent to mainland China where they could face torture and an unfair politicized trial. They have since morphed into calls for broader democratic reforms in the former British colony, along with the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and investigations into alleged police abuse of force.

The territory’s crucial travel industry has suffered as tourists put off their visits, with Australia, Ireland, Britain, and Japan having also issued travel advisories to their citizens.

Hong Kong police say a total of 589 people have been arrested in the protests since June 9, ranging in age from 13 to 76. They face charges including rioting, which allows for prison terms of up to 10 years. Protests have seen police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and other projectiles, with demonstrators responding with sharpened metal sticks, lobbed bricks, petrol bombs and carts full of burning debris.

On several occasions, protesters have also been attacked by unknown persons believed to be linked to organized crime groups, while police took little action to stop them.

The central government in Beijing has so far has not visibly intervened in the situation, though in editorials and public remarks it has condemned demonstrators and protest organizers as criminals, clowns, and “violent radicals” and alleged that they have been inflamed by politicians from the U.S., Taiwan, and elsewhere.

On Wednesday, the head of Beijing’s Cabinet office responsible for the territory said Hong Kong was facing its “most severe situation” since its handover from British rule in 1997 that and the central government was currently considering further measures.

Hong Kong was returned to China under the framework of “one country, two systems,” which promised the city political, civil and, economic freedoms not allowed under Communist Party rule on the mainland. However, many Hong Kong residents feel Beijing has been increasingly encroaching on their freedoms.