The United States is urging authorities in Hong Kong to heed the voices of those who joined in the massive street demonstration Tuesday, and not rush into enactment of a controversial anti-subversion law.
U.S. officials have been expressing concern about the Hong Kong legislation since plans for the sedition law were first raised by officials there last September.
They are sharpening the comments in the wake of Tuesday's demonstration, which drew hundreds of thousands of people and was described as the largest in Hong Kong since 1989 when residents protested the killing of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing's Tiananmen Square.
At issue is legislation by the Hong Kong government, expected to be enacted into law next week, providing long prison terms for sedition, treason, the disclosure of official secrets and other security offenses.
Though Hong Kong chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, and Chinese officials, have said the law would not affect civil liberties, its critics say it could be used by China to suppress freedoms in the territory, a former British colony handed over the China in 1997.
At a briefing here, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States remains committed to Hong Kong's autonomy and fundamental freedoms.
He pointed out that Tuesday's demonstration underlines the need for Hong Kong authorities to address the proposed changes to Article 23 of Hong Kong's charter with China with caution.
"It's an open expression of concern about the pending legislation that speaks to the importance of freedom of speech and strong civil liberties to the people of Hong Kong," he said. "The large turnout underscores how important it is for the Hong Kong government not to rush Article 23 legislation to enactment before the Legislative Council can discuss concerns raised by Hong Kong's citizenry through the most transparent means possible."
Mr. Boucher said the United States "strongly encourages" the Hong Kong government to consider additional proposals for clarification and safeguards as the Article 23 measure is considered in the Legislative Council.
Legal experts fear the pending law could be used by authorities to crush groups outlawed in China but currently allowed to operate in Hong Kong, such as the Falun Gong spiritual movement.
In a statement last month, the State Department credited the Hong Kong government with having been responsive to many of the concerns raised locally and abroad about the measure. But it said "serious reservations" remained about its provisions for banning organizations that endanger national security.
It said the law would "blur the dividing lines" between the Chinese and Hong Kong legal systems, and said the United States remained committed to the preservation of Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy under the "one country, two systems" formula.