WASHINGTON (AFP) - China must give Hong Kong the space to debate its political future and allow the "vigorous" voices of the city's residents to be heard, a top US diplomat said on Wednesday.
Discontent in Hong Kong, which reverted back to Chinese rule in 1997, is at its highest level in years over Beijing's insistence that it vet candidates before a 2017 vote for the city's next leader.
Under the terms of its handover by Britain, the vibrant city enjoys a special status for 50 years according it greater liberties than other parts of China. But there are fears that some of these freedoms are being eroded.
"We want to see continued evidence that the rights of the people of Hong Kong are being respected and that the principles that China embraced in connection with reversion are honored," America's top diplomat for East Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, told AFP.
"Key among those principles... is universal suffrage." Organisers say that half a million people protested on Tuesday in Hong Kong demanding democratic reforms including the right to have a say in the nominees to be the city's next leader.
Mr Russel, who visited Hong Kong earlier this year, said there were "a lot of ideas" about how to ensure universal suffrage in the run-up to 2017 and a "lot of back and forth" with Beijing.
"We believe it's very much in China's interests to demonstrate that it is living up to its commitments and honouring the principles in the Basic Law" which governs the territory.
"We hope that China will show restraint and create the space for the people of Hong Kong to peacefully express their views," he added.
He praised Tuesday's protests for being "vigorous and peaceful." More than 500 protesters were arrested at a sit-in early Wednesday after the march, but Russel said he had heard no reports of violence.
"For the voices of the people of Hong Kong to be heard and to be able to shape their political future is of course in our view crucially important," he added.