China summoned the U.S. ambassador in Beijing Thursday to "strongly protest" President Donald Trump's signing of bills on Hong Kong's human rights.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng told Ambassador Terry Branstad the move constituted "serious interference in China's internal affairs" and described the action as a "serious violation of international law," a statement from the foreign ministry said. He urged Washington to refrain from implementing the bills to "avoid further damage" to U.S.-China relations.
Trump Wednesday signed two separate bills backing pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, despite a trade deal in the balance and threats from Beijing.
The House and Senate passed both bills last week nearly unanimously.
One law requires the State Department to certify annually that China allows Hong Kong enough autonomy to guarantee its favorable trading status. It threatens sanctions on Chinese officials who do not.
The second bill bans the export of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and other non-lethal ammunition to Hong Kong police.
It was not immediately clear if Trump's decision might disrupt negotiations at easing the bilateral trade dispute. China’s foreign ministry said it will take "firm countermeasures" if the United States keeps interfering in Chinese affairs.
Hong Kong's government expressed "extreme regret," saying the U.S. moves sends the "wrong message" to the protesters.
But Trump, appearing on the U.S. cable news network Fox News late Tuesday, called Chinese President Xi Jinping "a friend of mine. He’s an incredible guy."
"I signed these bills out of respect for President Xi, China and the people of Hong Kong," Trump said in a later statement. "They are being enacted in the hope that leaders and representatives of China and Hong Kong will be able to amicably settle their differences, leading to long-term peace and prosperity for all."
Trump had twice called the large street protests in Hong Kong "riots" — a word the protesters say plays into the hands of Chinese authorities.
But Trump took credit for thwarting Beijing's threat to send in 1 million soldiers to put down the marches by saying such a move would have a "tremendous negative impact" on trade talks.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong police entered Polytechnic University on Thursday after a two-week siege and said they were searching for evidence and dangerous items such as petrol bombs, according to the assistant commissioner of the police.
Police officials said they were not searching for any protesters that may be still holed up on campus.
Protests erupted in Hong Kong in June over the local government’s plans to allow some criminal suspects to be extradited to the Chinese mainland.
Hong Kong withdrew the bill in September, but the street protests have continued, with the demonstrators fearing Beijing is preparing to water down Hong Kong's democracy and autonomy, nearly 30 years before the ex-British colony’s "special status" expires
Some of the protests have turned violent, with marchers throwing gasoline bombs at police, who have responded with live gunfire.