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(WASHINGTON) — For more than a month now, thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of two major cities to demand democratic reforms and been met by strong crackdowns by their government. But only one of those movements is getting vocal support from the U.S.
In Hong Kong, demonstrations shut down much of the territory, including the airport, for the 10th weekend in a row. What initially began as outrage over legislation that would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China have burned on — even after authorities said they would not pursue the bill — and protesters are now demanding that the bill be formally withdrawn, an investigation be launched into police brutality against demonstrators and they want broader democratic reforms.
Moscow has now seen four weekends with protesters filling the streets to demand that opposition candidates be included on the ballot for city elections in September. As those protests have grown and hundreds have been taken into custody, protesters are now also calling for their release.
In both cities, authorities have responded with fierce crackdowns that have, at times, included the use of brute force.
Hundreds of people have been detained by law enforcement in Moscow each weekend. On Aug. 10, more than 350 people were arrested for participating in unsanctioned protests in Moscow and other cities, according to independent rights watchdog OVD-Info, which reported that more than 1,000 people were detained during Aug. 3 protests and approximately 1,400 people on July 27.
Opposition leaders have also been targeted, with one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top opponents, Alexey Navalny, and his doctor accusing the government of poisoning him. Lyubov Sobol, who was one of the independent candidates barred from the ballot, live-streamed video as police entered her home and arrested her this past weekend.
On Sunday, there was a dramatic escalation of violence in Hong Kong too, with riot police firing tear gas in subway stations and bean bag rounds at close range. Demonstrators wore eye patches on Monday in symbolic solidarity with a woman who was reportedly hit in the eye on Sunday with a bean bag round and allegedly sustained permanent vision loss.
Since the movement’s peaceful beginnings in early June, the demonstrations have, at times, turned violent and confrontational in response to police attempts to disperse crowds. Protesters have also been assaulted by pro-Beijing vigilantes that may have ties to organized crime. In the chaos, Hong Kong authorities have tried to paint protesters as violent Western-backed riots.
In response to these events, the Trump administration has repeatedly voiced support for the demonstrations in Hong Kong while saying next to nothing about Moscow.
After protests the last three weekends in both cities, ABC News asked the State Department for a response to the mass arrests and the protesters’ demands. Each time, a department spokesperson declined to take questions on Moscow and instead referred to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on July 29.
Asked about the protests and the alleged poisoning of Navalny, Pompeo said, “I don’t have anything to add this morning. I think everyone understands the U.S. position, right? This goes for — you asked about Hong Kong earlier, Russia, all these places — we always support freedom of expression, freedom to practice one’s religion, to live out one’s conscience. We hope that for every citizen of the world.”
In contrast, U.S. lawmakers condemned Russian authorities’ actions and voiced support for demonstrators’ democratic objectives: “This type of behavior by Russian police and by Putin serves as a disturbing reminder of the dangers of speaking out against the regime in Russia. We stand with the courageous opposition leaders, protesters, and activists in Russia,” Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, the leaders of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement the same day as Pompeo’s comments.
Other Western countries have also been outspoken. Germany’s Foreign Minister, for example, called for “all peaceful demonstrators to be released soon” and “all independent candidates who meet the requirements to be allowed to run for election” in a statement on Aug. 4.
The response to Moscow’s demonstrations is also in sharp contrast to those in Hong Kong.
The State Department spokesperson issued three statements on Hong Kong, each urging “all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from violence” while underscoring support for protesters’ “freedoms of speech and assembly” and expressing concern about the “erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
On Monday, a spokesperson reinforced U.S. support for the demonstrations by adding, “[We] remain staunch in our support for freedom of expression and freedom of peaceful assembly in Hong Kong,” and urging, “Beijing to adhere to its commitments … to allow Hong Kong to exercise a high degree of autonomy.”
Others in the administration have not been quite as vocal, deferring more to Chinese authority over the territory. Hong Kong is a specially administered region — a part of China, but with its own capitalist economic system and a degree of political autonomy.
“That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China because Hong Kong is a part of China. They will have to deal with that themselves,” Trump said on Aug. 1.
Regardless of the U.S. response, both Russia and China have accused the U.S. of interfering in their affairs. Russia summoned a senior U.S. diplomat from the embassy in Moscow over an embassy advisory to U.S. citizens warned about the protests and included a map of their route — which the Foreign Ministry said amounted to incitement. Beijing has accused Washington of backing protests, which the State Department denied — a growing spat that escalated Friday with accusations of “thuggish” behavior.
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