U.S. Must Challenge China Over Hong Kong, James Mattis Says: 'We Have to Stand With Them'

Former U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis has urged the U.S. government to offer more support to anti-government protesters in Hong Kong, arguing that the ongoing unrest in the territory is an international, rather than an internal, issue.

Speaking in New York on Monday, the retired U.S. Marine general said that while President Donald Trump's administration should use caution given the sensitivity of the Hong Kong protests, America should at least be morally standing with those fighting for their freedoms (via Reuters).

Mattis said the protesters were standing for human rights, and that "when people stand up for those, I just inherently think we ought to stand with them, even if it's just moral."

U.S. lawmakers from both sides, plus Trump himself, have openly criticized the response of the Hong Kong government and its backers in Beijing to the protests, which began over a controversial extradition bill.

This fall, Congress will consider new legislation that would enable the U.S. to impose sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials believed to be abusing human rights in the territory and undermining its autonomy.

The region's rights are codified in the "one country, two systems" agreement reached before Hong Kong was handed from British to Chinese control in 1997.

Critics of the extradition bill said it would have undermined this system, as well as the personal and political freedoms afforded to Hong Kongers but not their compatriots on the mainland. On Monday, Mattis also said the Beijing-backed legislation was "in violation" of the agreement.

That bill has now been fully withdrawn by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but the move has been dismissed as too little, too late by activists. The protesters now have four other demands—Lam's resignation, an independent inquiry into police conduct, universal suffrage and an amnesty for all those arrested in connection with the demonstrations.

The Chinese government has characterized the protests as Western-directed riots. The Communist Party insists the matter is a domestic one, and has threatened to crush any nascent independence sentiment.

But Mattis said Monday that the unrest "is not an internal matter." On Sunday, tens of thousands of protesters descended on the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, calling on the Trump administration to lend them more support. Carrying U.S. flags and placards, the demonstrators also called on Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.

However, the former Pentagon chief warned that the U.S. must be cautious in responding to the unrest. "We have to be careful: We don't want to say we're going to land the 82nd Airborne Division in Hong Kong to do this," Mattis explained. "But morally? Yeah, I think we have to stand with them."

Us, support, Hong Kong, protests, China, Mattis
A protester with a U.S. national flag sticking out from her mask takes part in a march from Chater Garden to the US Consulate in Hong Kong on September 8, 2019. VIVEK PRAKASH/AFP/Getty Images/Getty