China has halted visa-free tourist travel for US diplomats to Hong Kong in retaliation for sanctions from Washington, which accuses Beijing of violating democratic processes in the territory.
Diplomats stationed in Hong Kong have work visas but US diplomatic passport holders not based in the territory until now have been able to travel there for holidays without visas.
Announcing the measure on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying warned the US to “stop meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs and China’s internal politics, stop walking further and further along this dangerous and mistaken path”.
The travel curbs will also apply to the autonomous region of Macau, the former Portuguese colony neighbouring Hong Kong that is a gambling centre with significant investment from US casino groups.
China and the US have been engaged in tit-for-tat sanctions against each others’ officials since Beijing abruptly imposed a new national security law on Hong Kong in June. Critics said the law rolled back freedoms promised to the territory on its handover to China from the UK in 1997.
The US sanctions have hit some Hong Kong officials hard given the international reach of the dollar-based American financial system. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said she had no access to banking services as a result of the sanctions and was being forced to keep “piles of cash” at home.
In addition to the travel curbs, Ms Hua said China would enforce unspecified “countermeasures” against those “US government officials, lawmakers, and NGO workers and their families” who have “displayed malicious behaviour and bear major responsibility on the Hong Kong question”.
“It’s very rare to see such actions from China,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of the institute of international studies at Fudan University, saying he could not recall any similar sanctions on personnel from other countries.
Last week, Hong Kong jailed three young pro-democracy activists on charges related to protests last year that involved millions of the region’s 7m people. Joshua Wong, the 24-year-old face of the pro-democracy movement, was sentenced to 13-and-a-half months in prison.
On Tuesday, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on 14 high-level Chinese officials for allegedly violating democratic processes in Hong Kong, whose autonomy from the mainland was enshrined in a joint declaration signed by London and Beijing on the handover.
The US targeted members of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, in the most recent sanctions. The 14 officials and their immediate family members are subject to asset freezes, as well as being barred from travelling to the US.
Most US citizens are currently unable to enter Hong Kong because of Covid restrictions. In September, the US government issued a travel advisory warning against travel to China, including Hong Kong, saying that “the PRC government arbitrarily enforces local laws, including by carrying out arbitrary and wrongful detentions”.
Additional reporting by Nian Liu in Beijing and Nicolle Liu in Hong Kong