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Police fire tear gas to disperse protesters attending an anti-government rally in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. - EPA

WASHINGTON: The United States is “deeply concerned” about Chinese paramilitary movement along the Hong Kong border, a US State Department spokeswoman said on Wednesday, while warning that continued erosion of the territory’s autonomy put at risk the preferential status it enjoys under US law.

On Tuesday, President Donald Trump cited US intelligence as saying that China’s government was moving troops to its border with Hong Kong, and urged calm as clashes continued between protesters and authorities in the former British colony.

The State Department official referred to “Chinese paramilitary movement along the Hong Kong border” but gave no details.

It was not clear on Tuesday if Trump was referring to new activity or that previously referred to in media reports. China’s state-run Global Times reported this week that Chinese police had assembled in Hong Kong’s neighboring city of Shenzhen for what appeared to be exercises.

The State Department spokeswoman reiterated a US call for all sides to refrain from violence and said it was important for the Hong Kong government to respect “freedoms of speech and peaceful assembly” and for Beijing to adhere to its commitments to allow Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.

Pro-Democracy protestors run away after Police personnel fired tear-gas shells in the Sham Shui Po Area of Hong Kong. - AFP

The State Department spokeswoman said the demonstrations in Hong Kong reflected “broad and legitimate concerns about the erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy” and added: “ The continued erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy puts at risk its long-established special status in international affairs.”

A 1992 US law affords Hong Kong preferential treatment in matters of trade and economics compared with China. Areas of special treatment include visas, law enforcement and investment.

A prominent US senator warned China on Tuesday that Hong Kong could lose its special US trade status if Beijing intervened directly to crack down on increasingly violent pro-democracy protests in the city.

Trump, who has been seeking a major deal to correct trade imbalances with China, has faced criticism from Congress and elsewhere for not taking a stronger public line on Hong Kong and for his characterisation of the protests there earlier this month as “riots” that were a matter for China to deal with.

Police stand guard as protesters attend an anti-government rally in Sham Shui Po, Hong Kong. - EPA

The Republican president said on Tuesday the situation in Hong Kong was “tricky,” but hoped it would work out for everybody, including China, and “for liberty” without anyone getting hurt or killed.

On Tuesday, US Senator Cory Gardner, the Republican chair of the Senate’s East Asia subcommittee, said the Trump administration “must make clear to Beijing that any crackdown in Hong Kong will have profound consequences for China, including imposition of US sanctions.”

On Wednesday, the Democratic chairman of the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, Eliot Engel, and the panel’s leading Republican, Michael McCaul, said they were concerned that 30 years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, China might again consider brutally putting down peaceful protests.

Policemen secure a street after dispersing Pro-Democracy Protestors in the Sham Shui Po Area of Hong Kong. - AFP

“We urge China to avoid making such a mistake, which would be met with universal condemnation and swift consequences,” they said in a joint statement.

Earlier on Wednesday, the State Department issued a travel advisory urging “increased caution in Hong Kong due to civil unrest.”

Hong Kong has been engulfed in protests since earlier this summer. Flights resumed on Wednesday at the Hong Kong airport, one of the world’s busiest, which shut down for two days after demonstrators occupied it. - Reuters

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