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 in the territory.
The U.S. 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.
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 centre.
Pompeo’s announcement represents the first concrete U.S. step in response to China’s moves.
Wall Street’s major indexes tumbled on Friday after a Wall Street Journal article said U.S. “meddling” in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other matters 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 U.S. rhetoric against Beijing in the midst of Trump’s re-election campaign, in which opinion polls have shown voters increasingly embittered toward China, especially over the coronavirus, which began in that country.
“President Trump promised to punish the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) 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 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.
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.
China’s Washington embassy did not respond to a request for comment on Pompeo’s visa move.
However, China’s official Xinhua news agency said a Hong Kong government spokesman had called legislation approved by the U.S. Senate on Thursday that would impose mandatory sanctions on people or companies that back efforts to restrict Hong Kong’s autonomy totally unacceptable.
The Senate 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 U.S. dollar transactions.
A State Department spokeswoman declined to name those targeted in Friday’s move, saying visa records were confidential. A Bloomberg columnist quoted a department official as saying the number was “in the single digits,” but relatives of designees could also be barred from U.S. travel.