World is watching how China deals with Hong Kong and its commitments to preserve freedoms

The world is watching how China deals with Hong Kong and its commitments to preserve freedoms there amid continuing tensions over prodemocracy protests, the United States' top diplomat for East Asia said Wednesday.

Daniel Russel told a Senate panel the U.S. supports the right of citizens of the semi-autonomous Chinese city to a free election for its chief executive in 2017.

Despite recent signs of warming U.S.-China ties, the situation in Hong Kong, one of Asia's leading financial centers, sits on a long list of irritants. Russel denied Chinese allegations that the U.S. has helped foment the more than two months of protests, which he said weren't driven by outsiders but by Hong Kong people speaking out about their future.

"The United States has been urging and counseling China to exercise restraint and flexibility and to allow the voices of the people of Hong Kong to be heard," he told a subcommittee overseeing Asia policy.

On Wednesday in Hong Kong, three protest leaders surrendered to police and called for an end to the increasingly violent demonstrations. Students are still occupying two sites after clashes with police earlier this week as they tried to surround city government headquarters.

Russel described that flare-up as "alarming" and called for all sides to lower tensions.

Sen. Marco Rubio, a possible candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, accused China of contradicting an agreement reached with Britain before the 1997 handover of the former colony. Under a miniconstitution known as the Basic Law that has governed Hong Kong since then, the city has enjoyed more liberty than people in mainland China.

The protesters are demanding China's government scrap its requirement that candidates in the 2017 election be approved by a panel chosen by Beijing.

Rubio said China clearly wants a Hong Kong leader that will do its own bidding and had proven itself to be an "untrustworthy partner."

Russel said China had not literally violated its commitment to allow "universal suffrage" by deciding to limit the pool of candidates, but it had fallen short of the aspirations of people in Hong Kong. A freer choice would enhance the legitimacy of the chief executive, he said.

"There's no question the United States, the region and the world is watching how China deals with Hong Kong and how it implements its commitments under the Basic Law," he said.