China Accuses U.S. of Meddling After Antony Blinken Opposes Jail Terms for Hong Kong Activists

China accused the U.S. of meddling in its affairs on Friday after Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed U.S. opposition to jail terms for Hong Kong activists who have been arrested and charged for pro-democracy activities.

Blinken asked authorities in Hong Kong to drop charges filed against those for "merely for standing for election or for expressing dissenting views" as police crack down on dissent. Hundreds of thousands of protesters in the city participated in unauthorized pro-democracy rallies in 2019.

"Instead of caring about Hong Kong's democracy and Hong Kong people's rights, what it is doing is to meddle in Hong Kong's politics and China's internal affairs," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said at a briefing Friday. Zhao also said the U.S. issued a "blatant smear" against China's legislation to "improve" the electoral system in Hong Kong.

The city's legislature on Thursday passed a bill restricting the number of directly elected positions in the legislature but increased the number of seats that can be approved by its mostly pro-Beijing committee, according to the Associated Press.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a press conference in the Jordanian capital of Amman on May 26. Alex Brandon/AFP via Getty Images

On Friday, Hong Kong media tycoon and outspoken pro-democracy activist Jimmy Lai was sentenced to more jail time over his role in an anti-government protest in 2019, as authorities step up their crackdown on dissent in the city.

Lai and nine others were charged with incitement to take part in an unauthorized assembly when they walked down a road with thousands of residents on October 1, 2019, to protest against dwindling political freedoms in Hong Kong. All 10 pleaded guilty to organizing an unauthorized assembly.

Lai, 73, was sentenced to 14 months in prison. He is currently serving a separate 14-month jail term for other convictions earlier this year also related to unauthorized rallies in 2019, when hundreds of thousands repeatedly took to the streets in the biggest challenge to Beijing since the city was handed from British to Chinese control in 1997. Beijing promised that the territory could retain its freedoms not found on the mainland for 50 years.

With the two sentences combined, Lai will serve a total of 20 months behind bars.

The founder of The Apple Daily, a feisty pro-democracy tabloid, Lai is also being investigated under the city's sweeping national security law, imposed last year, on suspicion of colluding with foreign powers to intervene in the Hong Kong affairs.

Also receiving jail terms of 18 months each were former lawmakers Albert Ho and Leung Kwok-hung, as well as Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy activist and ex-lawmaker who helped organize annual candlelight vigils in Hong Kong to commemorate the bloody crackdown in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Figo Chan, head of a political organization known for organizing protest rallies in the city, also received 18 months behind bars.

Three activists—Yeung Sum, Cyd Ho and Avery Ng—received 14-month jail terms. Two others, Richard Tsoi and Sin Chung-kai, had their jail terms suspended.

Some of the activists are already serving jail sentences for previous convictions and will serve part of their new sentences consecutive to their current jail terms.

Over the past year, Beijing has clamped down on civil liberties in response to protests. Hong Kong authorities have arrested and charged most of the city's pro-democracy advocates, including Joshua Wong, a student leader during 2014 protests. Scores of others have fled abroad.

Hong Kong's legislature's bill passed also ensures that only "patriots" can run for public posts.

Meanwhile, police banned the June 4 candlelight vigil marking the Tiananmen crackdown for the second year in a row citing social distancing restrictions, organizers said Thursday. Hong Kong's security minister warned residents that taking part in unauthorized assemblies is against the law and will be dealt with accordingly.

 Democracy Advocate Jimmy Lai in Hong Kong
Democracy advocate Jimmy Lai leaves Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal on February 9. Lai was sentenced to more jail time on May 28 over his role in an anti-government protest in 2019. Kin Cheung/AP Photo