Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the press at the State Department in Washington, DC, on May 20, 2020.
NICHOLAS KAMM—AFP/Getty Images
May 21, 2020 5:51 AM EDT

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Wednesday that the recent treatment of pro-democracy figures in Hong Kong has made it more difficult to asses the city’s autonomy from Beijing, a requirement for it to retain its special economic treatment under U.S. law.

Speaking at a press briefing in Washington D.C., Pompeo said that the annual report to Congress on the territory’s autonomy is still pending.

“We’re closely watching what’s going on there,” he said.

Early this week, 15 pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong made court appearances related to their roles in the sometimes violent mass demonstrations that paralyzed much of the city throughout the second half of 2019. Media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 71, and 82-year-old Martin Lee, known as the “father of democracy” in Hong Kong, are among those facing charges over the protests.

“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,” Pompeo said.

Several scuffles have also broken out between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing political blocs in recent weeks in the city’s legislature. Both sides have been vying for control over a key committee responsible for scrutinizing bills before they are sent to vote. On Monday, several pro-democracy legislators were dragged out of the chamber by security guards.

“This week pro-democracy legislators were man-handled while trying to stop a procedural irregularity by pro-Beijing legislators,” Pompeo said.

In November last year, as the protests raged and U.S-China tensions peaked, President Donald Trump signed legislation aimed at safeguarding Hong Kong’s civil rights and freedoms. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act links the financial hub’s special trade status to continued autonomy from Beijing. The legislation requires an annual assessment for Hong Kong to continue to qualify for favorable trading terms with the U.S.

Pompeo said on May 6 that the first assessment would be delayed until after top-level government meetings in Beijing, to take into account any actions that might effect Hong Kong. The National People’s Congress scheduled for May 22.

A spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry slammed Pompeo’s comments Thursday, and accuse the diplomat of “blackmailing” Hong Kong’s government. The spokesperson said that recent remarks by U.S. politicians amounted to blatant interference in Hong Kong and China’s internal affairs, according to Chinese media

Hong Kong, a former British colony, retroceded to China in 1997, and was guaranteed that its freewheeling way of life and independent judiciary would remain unchanged for 50 years. But perceived attempts by Beijing to exert greater control over the territory in recent years have sparked fears about the integrity of the so-called “one country, two systems” policy.

Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com.

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