Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday the United States was imposing visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials believed to be responsible for restricting freedoms in Hong Kong.
The move comes in advance of a meeting of China's parliament next week that is expected to enact new national security legislation for Hong Kong that has alarmed foreign governments and democracy activists in the special administrative region.
The US visa restrictions apply to "current and former CCP officials who are believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy", Pompeo said without naming them.
.@SecPompeo announced visa restrictions on Chinese Communist Party officials involved in undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, human rights, and fundamental freedoms. The U.S. calls on the CCP to keep their promises. https://t.co/1BchrYscxG.— Morgan Ortagus (@statedeptspox) June 26, 2020
Last month, President Donald Trump responded to China's new legislation by announcing a process to eliminate special economic treatment that has allowed Hong Kong to remain a global financial centre.
Pompeo's announcement represents the first concrete US step in response to China's moves.
US rhetoric against Beijing has intensified during Trump's re-election campaign. Opinion polls have found voters increasingly embittered towards China, especially over the coronavirus outbreak, which began in that country.
"President Trump promised to punish the Chinese Communist Party officials who were responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong's freedoms. Today, we are taking action to do just that," Pompeo said.
He said China had stepped up efforts to undermine Hong Kong's autonomy through the legislation and by pressuring local authorities to arrest pro-democracy activists and disqualify pro-democracy electoral candidates.
"The United States will continue to review its authorities to respond to these concerns," he said.
The Chinese embassy in Washington insisted in a statement that "no one has any legal grounds or right to make irresponsible comments on Hong Kong affairs.
"We urge the US side to immediately correct its mistakes, withdraw the decisions and stop interfering in China's domestic affairs. The Chinese side will continue to take strong measures to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests," it continued.
The Chinese legislation aims to tackle separatism, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, although it is unclear what activities would constitute such crimes and what the punishments would be. China says it will target only a small group of troublemakers.
The law is expected to be enacted by the decision-making body of China's parliament at a three-day meeting starting on Sunday.
On Thursday, the Republican-majority US Senate passed bipartisan legislation that would impose mandatory sanctions on people or companies that back efforts to restrict Hong Kong's autonomy.
The measure includes secondary sanctions on banks that do business with anyone backing any crackdown on the territory's autonomy, potentially cutting them off from American counterparts and limiting access to US dollar transactions.