U.S. Vice President Joe Biden called Friday for democratic rule in Hong Kong as he met with two outspoken activists from the semi-autonomous Chinese metropolis.

In an unusually high sign of support, the White House said Biden stopped by talks at the White House with Martin Lee, a founder of the opposition Democratic Party, and Anson Chan, the former number two in the Hong Kong government.

"The vice president underscored our long-standing support for democracy in Hong Kong and for the city's high degree of autonomy under the 'one country, two systems' framework," a White House statement said.

China promised a separate system for Hong Kong in an agreement with Britain, which returned control of the colonial outpost turned financial hub in 1997. China has promised direct elections for Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017.

Chan and Lee, in public appearances in the United States, charged that Beijing has been tightening its controls over Hong Kong and voiced fear that the communist rulers would only allow handpicked candidates to run in 2017.

The two voiced particular concern over freedom of the press in Hong Kong, pointing to violent assaults on journalists and charging that Beijing was pressuring advertisers to shun critical media.

Speaking Wednesday at the National Endowment for Democracy, Lee said that Western nations including the United States had a "moral obligation" to speak out as they had tried to reassure residents by supporting the handover.

Beijing once described Lee as a "running dog of the colonialists" and has pointed out that Hong Kong did not elect its own leaders under British rule.

[Image via Agence France-Presse]