White House urges Hong Kong leaders to ‘exercise restraint’ amid protests

The White House on Monday implored authorities in Hong Kong to "exercise restraint" amid mass pro-democracy protests following Beijing's decision to restrict reforms in the territory.

"The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the basic law, and we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people," press secretary Josh Earnest said.

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"We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity."

Protesters who have flooded the streets of Hong Kong and clashed with police are angry that the mainland has refused to allow a full slate of candidates in the 2017 vote for chief executive, the city's top government official. China only allows candidates who have been vetted by Communist Party leaders.

The so-called Occupy Central movement has forced school and business closures across Hong Kong.

Earnest said the U.S. hoped that protesters "express their views peacefully" but that the administration "believe that the basic legitimacy of the chief executive in Hong Kong will be greatly enhanced" by a "genuine choice of candidates that are representative of the peoples’ and the voters’ will."

A spokeswoman for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs warned Monday that foreign countries should be "cautious" about weighing in on the protests.

"Hong Kong belongs to China. Hong Kong affairs are purely China’s domestic affairs,” Hua Chunying said, according to the Los Angeles Times. “We strongly oppose any countries interfering or supporting Occupy Central by any methods. We wish these countries to be cautious.”

But Earnest said he was not concerned about weighing in.

"We’ve been very clear about what our principles and what our priorities are. They certainly apply to this situation in particular," Earnest said.

"And, you know, we have been very consistent in voicing our support to the People’s Republic of China for universal suffrage and for the aspirations of the Hong Kong people, and we’re going to continue to do so."

President Obama is expected to travel to Beijing in November, but the White House wouldn't say if Obama planned to raise the issue during talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

"I do feel confident, however, in saying that the president will certainly raise that the protection of basic universal human rights is critically important," Earnest said. "That’s something that the president has done in every interaction that he’s had with the Chinese leadership.

“I’m confident that that will be part of the conversation that he is looking forward to having in November," he added.