Pro-China activists holding placards and flags hand over a petition at the US consulate general in Hong Kong -- Washington has now imposed visa restrictions on Chinese officials over curbs on the city's autonomy

Washington (AFP) - President Donald Trump’s administration said Friday it was restricting US visas for a number of Chinese officials for infringing on the autonomy of Hong Kong, announcing action as Congress seeks tougher sanctions.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would curb visas for unspecified current and former officials of the Chinese Communist Party “who were responsible for eviscerating Hong Kong’s freedoms.”

The officials who were targeted were “responsible for, or complicit in, undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy,” which Beijing promised before regaining control of the territory in 1997 from Britain, Pompeo said.

“The United States calls on China to honor its commitments and obligations in the Sino-British Joint Declaration,” Pompeo said in a statement, urging protections of “freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.”

A State Department spokeswoman declined to say how many people were affected or even if they would all be denied entry to the United States.

“Individuals subject to this visa restriction policy will be evaluated for their eligibility under this policy when they apply and may be refused visas,” she said.

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong pay their respects in June 2020 to mark the one-year anniversary of the death of a man who took a fatal fall after hanging a banner against a now-withdrawn extradition bill that sparked mass protests

China is moving forward on a security law that would enforce punishment for subversion and other offenses in Hong Kong, which saw massive and sometimes violent pro-democracy protests last year.

Activists say the law would effectively undo the freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong, one of the world’s premier financial hubs.

But the Chinese embassy in Washington insisted in a statement that “no one has any legal grounds or right to make irresponsible comments on Hong Kong affairs citing the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

“We urge the US side to immediately correct its mistakes, withdraw the decisions and stop interfering in China’s domestic affairs. The Chinese side will continue to take strong measures to uphold national sovereignty, security and development interests,” it continued.

- ‘Not nearly enough’ -

Pompeo’s action comes one day after the US Senate unanimously approved a bill that would impose mandatory economic sanctions in the United States against Chinese officials and Hong Kong police identified as hurting the city’s autonomous status.

In one element of pressure that could have far-reaching consequences, the Hong Kong Autonomy Act would also punish banks that do “significant transactions” with identified violators.

Riot police gather on a road in Hong Kong as protesters take part in a pro-democracy rally against China's proposed new security law in May 2020

Supporters of the bill, which needs to be passed by the House of Representatives, say they want to impose real costs on Chinese officials rather than just issue condemnations.

Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen, who teamed up with Republican Pat Toomey on the act, said the visa action announced by Pompeo was insufficient.

“Visa restrictions are not nearly enough to deter China from continuing its crackdown on freedoms in Hong Kong,” Van Hollen said.

“The administration must impose additional sanctions, and now that the Senate has acted, the House must pass our Hong Kong Autonomy Act, and the president should sign and implement it fully without delay,” he said.

Trump has not publicly said if he would sign the Hong Kong Autonomy Act into law, but in the past, he has criticized legislation that ties his hands.

Led by Pompeo, the Trump administration has furiously denounced China on issues from its initial handling of the coronavirus pandemic to human rights to its military spending.

US Senator Chris Van Hollen, seen here in January 2020, has been co-leading a push to impose sanctions over the infringement of Hong Kong autonomy

But Trump is also hopeful that China will implement a bilateral trade deal and has praised President Xi Jinping personally.

An explosive new book by former national security advisor John Bolton alleges that Trump asked Xi to boost his re-election chances by buying produce from politically crucial farmers.

Pompeo earlier declared that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous in US eyes, but initial actions taken by Trump have been vague, including ordering changes to an extradition treaty.