Hong Kong activists have appealed directly to the United States Congress to counter Beijing's erosion of the city's autonomy, urging lawmakers to pass a Bill in support of pro-democracy protesters.
The activists, including student leader Joshua Wong and singer-actress Denise Ho - who is blacklisted in mainland China for her support of the protests - on Tuesday testified at a bipartisan congressional commission about police brutality against protesters and political interference from the mainland.
Beijing is unable to understand, let alone govern a free society, said Mr Wong, who added that the "one country, two systems" model which guarantees Hong Kong its freedoms has given way to Beijing's "grand imperial project" of tightening control over its territories.
"Beijing should not have it both ways, grabbing all the economic benefit of Hong Kong's standing in the world while eroding our freedom," he said.
The activists repeatedly called on congressmen to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would require Washington to annually assess the city's special status under American law and allow it to sanction leaders who undermine Hong Kong's democracy.
"This is a crisis of values and systems. We need to contain the Communist Party of China," said student activist Sunny Cheung. He later added: "America, you are the only superpower that can really try to contain China. That's why we need support from the US government."
The Bill is gaining momentum in Washington and was backed by 20 senators - a fifth of the Senate - and 29 representatives in the House as of yesterday morning.
Congressman Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said in his opening remarks: "It is time we put the Chinese government on an annual notice that further erosion of autonomy, or a crackdown on Hong Kong, will cause the city and by extension mainland China to lose its special trade arrangement with the United States."
He told the activists that he believed their cause was "noble and just" and assured them that the Bill would receive bipartisan support and be passed in the House and the Senate. He said: "We get the message and we have work to do."
The activists, who were recently in Berlin and New York to drum up international support for the democracy protests, were warmly welcomed by lawmakers on Capitol Hill, where the mood has shifted against China.
Beijing is angered by the Bill and has repeatedly told the international community to stay out of its internal affairs.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said at a regular media briefing yesterday: "We urge the US and other sides to stop interfering in China's affairs and we would like to warn certain people that any attempts to disrupt Hong Kong by soliciting foreign support will not succeed."
The Hong Kong government also said that foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in its internal affairs.
In a statement, it added that the "one country, two systems" principle has been fully and successfully implemented in Hong Kong, and that human rights and freedoms there were fully protected by law.
"The police's enforcement actions are to restore public order as soon as possible and to protect the life and property of the general public," said the city's government, noting that some protesters had hurled petrol bombs, set fires and paralysed traffic in "continuous escalation of violence".
Ms Ho said in her testimony: "This is not a plea for so-called foreign interference. This is a plea for democracy. This is a plea for the freedom to choose."
In Washington, the activists were accompanied by a dozen supporters, who applauded loudly after each testimony. After the hearing, they chanted pro-democracy slogans and distributed sheets of paper with the lyrics of the city's crowdsourced unofficial anthem Glory To Hong Kong, singing in Cantonese and English.
At a post-hearing press conference, they launched the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a non-governmental organisation in Washington advocating for the Hong Kong democracy movement.
Mr Wong and others will spend the next few days in meetings with key figures on Capitol Hill, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the council's managing director Samuel Chu told The Straits Times.