NEW YORK • Former US defence secretary James Mattis said anti-government protests in Hong Kong were "not an internal" Chinese matter and that the US should offer at least moral support to the demonstrators.
The retired US Marine general told a Reuters Newsmaker event in New York on Monday that the US should generally side with those standing up for human rights, which he said included the Hong Kong protesters.
"When people stand up for those (rights), I just inherently think we ought to stand with them, even if it's just moral," said Mr Mattis, who abruptly resigned as Pentagon chief last December over disagreements with President Donald Trump's foreign policy.
"This is not an internal matter," Mr Mattis said in remarks likely to irritate Beijing, which has denounced the sometimes violent protests and accused the US and Britain of fomenting unrest in the former British colony.
Mr Trump had earlier described the protests as riots, but also called on China to end the discord in a "humanitarian" way.
Mr Mattis said a controversial proposed law allowing people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China was in breach of the "one country, two systems" formula under which Britain returned control of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
"They said it would be two systems, and the extradition law was a violation of that," said Mr Mattis, who is promoting a new memoir about his role in the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although the extradition Bill was withdrawn last week after months of unrest, mass protests across Hong Kong continue, having grown into a broader pro-democracy movement.
In his nearly two years as defence secretary, Mr Mattis had tried to forge a relationship with the Chinese military, worried that tense relations between the two countries could boil over into conflict.