HONG KONG -- The U.S. government on Thursday stepped up its warnings to travelers to Hong Kong because of increasing violence surrounding pro-democracy protests in the Chinese city.
The State Department's Level 2 travel advisory issued Thursday urges "increased caution in Hong Kong due to civil unrest" and tells travelers to avoid demonstrations and to "exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings or protests."
The protests were sparked two months ago by proposed extradition legislation that could have seen suspects sent to mainland China, where protesters say they could face torture and unfair politicized trials. They have since morphed into calls for broader democratic reforms in the former British colony, along with the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and investigations into alleged police abuse of force.
The territory's crucial travel industry has suffered as tourists put off their visits, with Australia, Ireland, Britain and Japan having also issued travel advisories to their citizens.
Hong Kong police say 589 people have been arrested in the protests since June 9, ranging in age from 13 to 76. They face charges including rioting, which allows for prison terms of up to 10 years. Police have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and other projectiles at protesters, with demonstrators responding with metal sticks, bricks, gasoline bombs and carts full of burning debris.
On several occasions, protesters have been attacked by unknown people believed to be linked to organized crime groups, while police took little action to stop them.
The central government in Beijing so far has not visibly intervened in the situation, though in editorials and public remarks it has condemned demonstrators and protest organizers as criminals, clowns and "violent radicals" and alleged that they have been inflamed by politicians from the U.S., Taiwan and elsewhere.
On Wednesday, the head of Beijing's Cabinet office responsible for the territory said Hong Kong was facing its "most severe situation" since its handover from British rule in 1997 and the central government was currently considering further measures.
Hong Kong was returned to China under the framework of "one country, two systems," which promised the city political, civil and economic freedoms not allowed under Communist Party rule on the mainland. However, many Hong Kong residents feel Beijing has been increasingly encroaching on their freedoms.
Pro-democracy protesters said Thursday they plan to hold a demonstration at Hong Kong's international airport over the weekend, along with marches elsewhere in the territory.
A protest spokesman who goes by only his surname, Chan, to avoid identification by authorities said such actions will continue until Lam addresses the movement's demands, something she has adamantly refused to do thus far.
"The only way to regain the public's trust in the government and the Hong Kong police force is by properly, directly and conscientiously addressing the five demands," Chan said at a news conference where movement representatives wore helmets and face masks to conceal their features.
"The Hong Kong government's attempts to achieve the impossible, by trying to exhaust the inexhaustible, will not prevail," he said. "In our struggle for autonomy, democracy and the rule of law, we will continue to fight until the end."
A police spokesman said no application for a protest at the airport had been received and urged any participants to remain peaceful.
Also Thursday, the Chinese foreign ministry's office in Hong Kong issued a formal protest over a reported meeting between U.S. consular officials in the city and opposition figures, including prominent activist Joshua Wong.
The statement demanded the U.S. explain the purpose of the meeting and "immediately cease interfering in Hong Kong affairs."
Wong was released in June after serving a two-month sentence for contempt related to his involvement in 2014 protests advocating a more democratic electoral process known as the Umbrella Movement.
In Washington, the State Department defended the diplomat's actions and accused the Chinese government of "thuggish" behavior" for allegedly leaking her photograph and personal family information.
"I don't think that leaking an American diplomat's private information — pictures, names of their children — I don't think that's a formal protest," spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus told reporters.
She added: "That's not how a responsible nation would behave. Releasing any of that personal information of an American diplomat is completely unacceptable. That's not a protest. That's what a thuggish regime does."
She said the political officer in question was doing "what American diplomats do every single day around the world."
"American diplomats meet with formal government officials, meet with opposition protesters, not just in Hong Kong but in China. Our diplomat was doing her job," Orgtagus said.