US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday Washington was imposing visa restrictions on Chinese officials responsible for restricting freedoms in Hong Kong, but he did not name any of those targeted.
The move comes ahead of a three-day meeting of China's parliament from Sunday expected to enact new national security legislation for Hong Kong that has alarmed foreign governments and democracy activists.
The US visa restrictions apply to "current and former" Chinese Communist Party officials "believed to be responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy," Pompeo said, without naming them.
Last month, President Donald Trump responded to China's plans by saying he was initiating a process to eliminate special economic treatment that has allowed Hong Kong to remain a global financial center since its handover by Britain in 1997.
Pompeo's announcement represents the first concrete US step in response to China's moves, but Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, said visa restrictions were largely symbolic and the fact that no names were given could lessen their impact.
A State Department spokeswoman said relatives of designees could also be barred. A Bloomberg columnist quoted a department official as saying the number of officials targeted was "in the single digits."
Chinese embassy spokeswoman Fang Hong said China "opposes the U.S. side's wrongful decisions," and added that China's legislation targeted only "a very narrow category of acts that seriously jeopardize national security."
"We urge the U.S. to immediately correct its mistakes, withdraw the decisions and stop interfering in China's domestic affairs," she said.
Wall Street's major indexes tumbled on Friday after a Wall Street Journal article said US "meddling" on issues like Hong Kong and Taiwan could jeopardize Chinese purchases under a Phase 1 trade deal Trump agreed with China in January, spooking investors already worried about a surge in coronavirus cases.
Pompeo's announcement comes at a time of intensified US rhetoric against Beijing as Trump campaigns for re-election. Opinion polls have shown voters increasingly embittered toward China, especially over the coronavirus, which began there.
"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 accused China of pressuring local authorities to arrest pro-democracy activists and disqualify electoral candidates, and added: "The United States will continue to review its authorities to respond to these concerns."
Pompeo said last week Washington would treat Hong Kong as a Chinese city rather than an autonomous one to the extent that China treated the territory as a Chinese city. He said Hong Kong elections due in September would show China's intentions.
On Thursday, the US Senate approved a bill that would impose mandatory sanctions on people or companies that back efforts to restrict Hong Kong's autonomy. It includes secondary sanctions on banks that do business with anyone backing any crackdown on the territory's autonomy.
A Hong Kong government spokesman called the legislation unacceptable, China's official Xinhua news agency said.