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US not saying if it will ban sales of tear gas and other riot-control gear to Hong Kong police

Owen Churchill, US correspondent

The United States government refused to say on Monday whether it would follow Britain in suspending sales of munitions to the Hong Kong police force after a weekend of violent clashes between police and protesters and a citywide strike.

US lawmakers wrote two government agencies last week, calling for a temporary ban on future sales of crowd and riot control equipment and a public announcement that the US "will not contribute to the internal repression of peaceful protest in Hong Kong".

In a bipartisan appeal, House representatives Christopher Smith and James McGovern said "further scrutiny of the types of programmes and contacts the US engages in with the Hong Kong police force will be needed moving forward".

The lawmakers had yet to receive a response to their letter, a spokesman for Smith said on Monday.

When asked on Monday whether the State Department was considering suspending munition sales to Hong Kong authorities, an agency spokeswoman said she could not comment on specific direct commercial sales licensing activities, citing federal law.

Reviews of the transfer of defence-related goods and services were carried out by the US government on a "case by case basis", the spokeswoman said, adding that the government "weighs the economic, national security, foreign policy and human rights implications of each proposed transfer in making its decision or recommendation".

"Review and monitoring is an integral component of assistance delivered to any recipient nation to make sure that assistance is being used in the manner intended," she said.

Activists in Hong Kong have accused the police of using disproportionate force and of violating munition protocol: for example, by firing rubber bullet rounds " which suppliers say should only be fired at regions below the waist " at head-level.

Hong Kong protesters flee tear gas fired in Wong Tai Sin. Photo: Felix Wong alt=Hong Kong protesters flee tear gas fired in Wong Tai Sin. Photo: Felix Wong

According to city authorities, police have fired 1,000 tear gas canisters since June 9, when unrest triggered by a proposed amendment to Hong Kong's extradition laws first erupted.

Photographs circulated online from the past weekend's clashes between protesters and police show city police used at least one US-made canister type. The vendor, Pennsylvania-based Nonlethal Technologies, declined to comment on the calls for an export ban when contacted on Monday.

A commerce department spokesman said US exports of tear gas and other law enforcement equipment " including pepper spray, police helmets, shields and batons " to Hong Kong all required licences from the agency, which reviews the licence requests in consultation with the departments of state and defence.

"When licences are issued, the department remains committed to strictly enforcing those licences," the spokesman said.

The calls from Smith and McGovern for a ban on US munition sales to Hong Kong joined a growing body of similar appeals from campaigners in the city.

A White House petition launched in July by student activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung demanding a suspension of crowd control equipment exports has amassed close to 110,000 signatures, passing the 100,000 required for a response from the White House.

The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

In June, Britain's then-foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that no further export licenses for crowd control equipment would be issued to vendors until human rights concerns were addressed.

Hunt also called for "a robust, independent" investigation into the Hong Kong police force's handling of protests, a request echoed in the US lawmakers' letter.

Responding to the congressmen's appeal on Monday, the Chinese government said the US was ignoring "issues of widespread police brutality and abuse of powers in its own country".

Criticism of the Hong Kong police force would only show to the world the "arrogance, prejudice, hypocrisy, coldbloodedness, selfishness and oppressiveness of the United States," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in a regular press briefing.

In their letter, the congressmen also called on the agency heads "to push back, in the strongest terms possible", against the Hong Kong and Chinese governments' efforts to characterise the demonstrations as "riots".

A tear gas canister at the site of a clash between anti-government protesters and riot police in Wong Tai Sin. Photo: Felix Wong alt=A tear gas canister at the site of a clash between anti-government protesters and riot police in Wong Tai Sin. Photo: Felix Wong

The likelihood of such a move waned significantly last week when US President Donald Trump himself adopted the language of Beijing and called the ongoing protests "riots".

Speaking to reporters on Friday, Trump said the matter was between Hong Kong and China, "because Hong Kong is a part of China. They'll have to deal with that themselves. They don't need advice."

Beijing has consistently evoked Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong to reject critical remarks from foreign governments about the situation in the city.

"There are clear global interests in preserving Hong Kong's autonomy and the guaranteed rights of its citizens," he said. "As such, the US must clearly signal to the Hong Kong and Chinese governments that the escalation of tensions needlessly prolongs political instability that they created."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.