China has accused US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of "blackmailing" the Hong Kong government with the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, saying on Thursday the US administration's recent actions amounted to blatant interference in China's internal affairs.
Pompeo said on Wednesday the recent treatment of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong made it harder to assess whether the territory remains highly autonomous from China, a requirement for the special treatment afforded to the city under American law.
A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry's office of the commissioner to Hong Kong said in a statement that Pompeo's actions could not scare the Chinese people and that Beijing would safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests.
Hong Kong has been governed under "one country, two systems" since it was returned to China in 1997. The framework affords the territory freedoms that are not allowed anywhere else on the mainland, but concerns that those freedoms are being curtailed has helped fuel a growing movement for democracy.
Mass protests that began last year over a now-abandoned extradition bill - which would have allowed suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial - have begun to re-emerge in recent weeks as physical distancing measures imposed as a result of the coronavirus have been relaxed.
But pro-democracy groups remain under pressure, with 15 people, including veteran politicians, a publishing tycoon and senior lawyers, arrested in April in a move that drew condemnation from the United States, Europe and international rights groups.
They were formally charged under colonial-era laws on Monday with organising and attending the protests, with five people facing more serious charges that carry a penalty of as many as five years in prison.
Pompeo said a congressionally-mandated State Department assessment of the territory's autonomy was still pending.
"We are closely watching what's going on there," he told a news conference.
"Leading Hong Kong activists like Martin Lee and Jimmy Lai were hauled into court. Actions like these make it more difficult to assess that Hong Kong remains highly autonomous from mainland China."
China has regularly dismissed popular discontent in Hong Kong claiming instead that foreigners are behind the rallies.