Beijing on Monday said it would target U.S.-based NGOs and suspend naval visits to Hong Kong in retaliation for the passing of the Human Rights and Democracy Act by Washington last month.
"In response to the unreasonable behavior of the U.S. side, the Chinese government has decided to suspend reviewing applications for U.S. warships to go to Hong Kong for recuperation as of today," foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing in Beijing.
The last U.S. Navy vessel to visit Hong Kong was the USS Blue Ridge in April. The ruling Chinese Communist Party has since turned down two requests for U.S. ships to dock there in August, without saying why.
Hua said sanctions will apply to NGOs that had behaved "badly" over the recent unrest in Hong Kong, citing the National Endowment for Democracy, Human Rights Watch and Freedom House.
"A large amount of facts and evidence make it clear that these non-governmental organizations support anti-China [forces] and incite separatist activities for Hong Kong independence," she said.
Hua said Beijing blames such organizations "for the chaotic situation in Hong Kong."
Tens of thousands of people poured onto the streets of Hong Kong, waving American flags and singing the national anthem of the United States in a gesture of thanks after the new law was passed last week.
U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act a week after the legislation cleared the House of Representatives 417-1 in a show of support for Hong Kong after months of pro-democracy protests.
The new act requires the U.S. State Department to report annually to Congress whether Hong Kong is “sufficiently autonomous from China” to justify keeping the city’s distinct trading status, and whether China has “eroded Hong Kong’s civil liberties and rule of law,” as protected by the city’s Basic Law.
It also enables the U.S. government to freeze the assets of, and refuse visas to, officials deemed responsible for human rights violations in the city.
China's foreign ministry responded angrily to the signing of the bill into law, warning that Washington would face consequences for what it called interference in China's internal affairs.
Meanwhile, pro-democracy lawmakers Au Nok-hin, of the Civic Party, and Eddie Chu, of the Land Justice League, announced a bid to fight back against police use of public order legislation to arrest and prosecute protesters through the Legislative Council (LegCo).
Slash maximum sentences
Au and Chu want to slash the maximum sentences for rioting, currently 10 years' imprisonment, and unlawful assembly, currently at five years, to three years and six months, respectively.
Barrister Margaret Ng said the law as it stands was brought in by the British colonial regime as a deterrent in the wake of the communist-backed riots of 1967, and breaches international human rights standards.
"The Public Order Ordinance currently in operation is in breach of human rights, because of its too-broad definitions and the very low minimum number of people to constitute an unlawful assembly," Ng said.
"It means that police can arrest everyone if they believe that just a small number of people are disturbing public order," she said.
Ng called on the government to suspend prosecutions under the existing law, should the private member's bill be debated in LegCo.
Hong Kong police have arrested nearly 6,000 people since the anti-extradition movement broadened into a city-wide pro-democracy movement in early June, with hundreds of rioting and public order prosecutions currently in the pipeline.
But any private members' bill will need authorization from chief executive Carrie Lam before it can be tabled in LegCo, meaning that the government can veto any such initiative.
Au said the bill could provide the government with legal justification for meeting two more of the five demands of the protest movement; the withdrawal of the term "rioters" to describe protesters, and an amnesty for arrested protesters.
The United Nations, human rights organizations, medics and other governments have expressed growing concern, calling on the Lam administration to de-escalate the situation.
Lam has offered dialogue, but protesters have ruled out talking to the government until their demands are met.
The government has withdrawn legal amendments that would have allowed extradition to mainland China — a plan that sparked the movement in the first place — but protesters also want fully democratic elections to the Legislative Council (LegCo) and for the post of chief executive, an amnesty for the thousands of people arrested since protests began, an end to the use of the term "rioting," and an independent inquiry into police violence.
'More injustice' feared
Lam and her officials have repeatedly ruled out meeting any of the other demands.
Au said the current legal framework means that people who join legally approved and peaceful marches, or even those who are just passing by or watching events unfold, can be arrested by police.
"If such people are then charged, this will only lead to more injustice," he said. "The law should ensure that a person can exercise their right to participate in a legitimate assembly."
Chu said police — amid ever louder calls from Beijing to 'put an end to violence as soon as possible' — have charged far more people with serious offenses like "rioting" in this year's protests than they did during the Occupy Central movement three years ago, including peaceful protesters and bystanders.
"This bill is an important litmus test of whether the government is going to use this outdated weapon on the general public," Chu said. "I hope that Carrie Lam won't pass up this opportunity."
Joshua Wong, a student leader during the 2014 pro-democracy movement, called for an end to "indiscriminate prosecutions" by the city's department of justice.
"The United Nations has repeatedly criticized the Public Order Ordinance as restrictive and outdated," Wong said. "If the chief executive refuses to issue a written notice [allowing the bill to be tabled," she will in turn attract more pressure and criticism from the international community."
Wong said any refusal by Lam to allow the private member's bill through for debate in LegCo would be a relevant decision under the terms of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
He said there are currently still nearly 100 people detained in the Lai Chi Kok Reception Centre, where arrestees are taken pending key decisions about criminal charges and bail.
He called for their release, saying there should be an end to political trials before the bill is debated.
Reported by Man Hoi-tsan for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.