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Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has snapped back at Western politicians voicing support for democratic reform in Hong Kong, reiterating Beijing’s insistence that foreign countries should keep out of what China considers a domestic problem.

Speaking before his meeting Wednesday with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who urged Wang’s government to heed the calls of Hong Kong’s protesters, Wang told reporters that the Obama Administration’s input was unwelcome, calling on Washington and other governments to “respect China’s sovereignty.”

Beijing has “very formally and clearly stated its position: Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs,” said the high-ranking Chinese official.

Wang’s comments on Wednesday are familiar, as China’s Communist Party is seldom friendly to the U.S. weighing in on its human-rights record. Washington has sought to strike a balance between chastising China for a litany of oppressive domestic policies while developing extensive economic ties with the world’s most populous nation.

“The U.S. finds it very difficult to talk about democracy with China,” says Maya Wang, a Hong Kong–based researcher for Human Rights Watch. “But this is an opportunity, when you have thousands of protesters on the ground showing strong support for democracy.”

Since Sunday, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have donned yellow ribbons and raised umbrellas — adopted as the movement’s symbol after they were used to fend off police pepper spray — across some of this cosmopolitan city’s busiest districts.

They are demanding that Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive (CE) Leung Chun-ying, steps down, and that voters be given the right to freely choose their own CE in 2017. While Beijing has agreed to a popular vote, an Aug. 31 statement insisted that the list of just two or three candidates must first be approved a nomination committee plump with Chinese Communist Party loyalists.

HRW’s Wang suggested that a possible compromise could be reached if Beijing conceded to restaff the nomination committee to better represent Hong Kongers’ interests. “If the U.S. is serious about these issues, then they must speak out for Hong Kong,” she adds.

Later on Wednesday, Foreign Minister Wang met with U.S. President Barack Obama and National Security Adviser Susan Rice, both of whom “expressed their hope that differences between Hong Kong authorities and protesters will be addressed peacefully,” according to a readout from the meeting.

The original purpose of the Washington meetings was to prepare for Obama’s much anticipated November visit to China, where he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders are expected to discuss collaboration on several global issues, including the Ebola epidemic and the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Beijing has accused the U.S. and other foreign powers — including Britain, which returned Hong Kong to China in 1997 — of inciting the ongoing pro-democracy protests. A cartoon shared on social media in China showed a grim reaper Uncle Sam knocking on Hong Kong’s proverbial door and bellowing, “Open up! Democracy is here!” while blood pooled out of nearby doors marked Syria and Iraq, among others.

“Of course, the complication with the U.S. making a stand is that Beijing is already trying to blame this all on foreign hostile forces,” says William Nee, a Hong Kong–based researcher at Amnesty International. “But the U.S. should not be deterred by that.”

“This is a critical moment for Hong Kong,” he adds, “and the international community must voice its support.”

Those thronging Hong Kong’s sweltering streets appear eager for foreign governments to lean hard on China. Earlier this week, young protesters in the pulsing retail district of Causeway Bay knelt under a yellow umbrella and crafted pro-democracy signs in multiple languages, including Hindi, Korean, German, and French, as well as Cantonese and English.

“We cannot do this on our own,” said university student Ng Yuen-mei, 23. “We need the attention of the world.”

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

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