Beijing (AFP) - China on Monday sanctioned 11 Americans, including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, in retaliation for similar US moves prompted by Beijing's crackdown in Hong Kong.
Washington last week accused 11 officials of suppressing "freedom and democratic processes" in Hong Kong, including city leader Carrie Lam, and announced plans to freeze their US assets.
It was the toughest US action yet in response to Beijing's introduction of a sweeping and controversial new national security law for the territory.
Beijing said the measure was a violation of international law and "grossly interferes in China's internal affairs".
"China has decided to impose sanctions on some people that behaved badly on Hong Kong-related issues," foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Monday, with Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth and National Endowment for Democracy president Carl Gershman also on the list.
Zhao did not give details of what the sanctions would entail.
"Last month #China banned me. Today they sanctioned me. I don't want to be paranoid but I am starting to think they don't like me," Rubio tweeted.
Republican senators Rubio and Cruz established themselves as two of the most vocal supporters of Hong Kong's democracy movement last year, when the city was convulsed by huge and sometimes violent protests.
Beijing has accused "external forces" of fomenting unrest and responded to the unrest by imposing the security law in late June, sending a political chill through the semi-autonomous finance hub.
Since then, the city's leaders have postponed local elections, citing the coronavirus pandemic.
"The Chinese government's announcement of unspecified sanctions against me is little more than an effort to distract attention from its wholesale assault on the rights of the people of Hong Kong," Roth said in a statement issued by Human Rights Watch.
Authorities have also issued arrest warrants for six exiled pro-democracy campaigners and launched a crackdown on other activists.
On Monday, Hong Kong media mogul Jimmy Lai, one of the city's most vocal Beijing critics, was arrested under the security law.
"Jimmy Lai and his son were charged with 'colluding w/ foreign powers,'" Rubio said.
"As more arrests are expected, the free world must respond quickly as well as provide safe harbor to at-risk Hong Kongers."
The US measures come three months ahead of the November presidential election in which the incumbent Donald Trump, who trails his rival Joe Biden in the polls, is campaigning hard on an increasingly strident anti-Beijing message.
As public disapproval has grown for his handling of the pandemic, Trump has pivoted from his previous focus on striking a trade deal with China to blaming the country for the coronavirus crisis.
Washington and Beijing have sparred on multiple fronts in recent months, and both sides have already imposed sanctions on each other over China's mass internment of mostly Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.
Trump on Thursday ordered Americans to stop doing business within 45 days with popular Chinese apps WeChat and TikTok.
The order claimed TikTok could be used by China to track the locations of federal employees, build dossiers on people for blackmail and conduct corporate espionage.
Zhao said Monday that Washington's Hong Kong-related sanctions "will only make the world more aware of US hegemony, bullying and double standards".