WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday he believed China had threatened to interfere with the work of U.S. journalists in Hong Kong, and warned Beijing that any decision impinging on Hong Kong's autonomy could affect the U.S. assessment of Hong Kong's status.
"These journalists are members of a free press, not propaganda cadres, and their valuable reporting informs Chinese citizens and the world," Pompeo said in a statement.
Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, and the territory was promised a "high degree of autonomy" for 50 years. The system formed the basis of the territory's special status under U.S. law, which has helped it thrive as a world financial center.
Pompeo announced on May 6 that the State Department was delaying a report to Congress assessing whether Hong Kong enjoyed sufficient autonomy from China to continue receiving special treatment from the United States.
He said at the time the delay was to allow the report to account for any actions Beijing might contemplate in the run-up to China's May 22 National People's Congress.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing have spiked in recent weeks, as Pompeo and President Donald Trump have complained about China's early handling of the coronavirus outbreak.
The United States and China have also clashed over journalists working in each other's countries.
In February, the Trump administration said it would begin treating five major Chinese state-run media entities with U.S. operations the same as foreign embassies, requiring them to register their employees and U.S. properties with the State Department.
Beijing then expelled three Wall Street Journal correspondents - two Americans and an Australian - following an opinion column by the newspaper that called China the "real sick man of Asia".
In early March, the United States slashed the number of journalists allowed to work there at four major Chinese state-owned media outlets to 100, from 160 previously.
In retaliation, China said it was revoking the accreditations of American correspondents with the New York Times <NYT.N>, News Corp's <NWSA.O> Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post whose credentials expire by the end of 2020.
Beijing said the expelled journalists would not be permitted to work in mainland China, Hong Kong or Macau. The expulsion is expected to affect at least 13 journalists, according to the Foreign Correspondents Club of China.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Raju Gopalakrishnan)