HONG KONG—China’s arrest of 12 Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, nabbed as they tried to flee the city by boat in the face of an intensifying crackdown on dissent, is fueling a new war of words between Washington and Beijing.
On Sunday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said on Twitter that the people detained weren’t seeking democratic freedoms but “elements attempting to separate Hong Kong from China.” Other Chinese officials this weekend accused the U.S. of meddling in China’s internal affairs.
U.S. State Department officials on Friday called on China to ensure that the activists receive due process of law. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the group had been denied access to lawyers and said China had yet to say what charges they face or to provide information about their welfare.
The detentions have rattled nerves in Hong Kong, where many were already on edge after China imposed a new national security law on June 30, leading to more than a dozen arrests, many opposition voices to fall silent and some to flee abroad.
China’s handling of the case has rekindled fears about the mainland’s opaque legal system—one of the main drivers of mass protests in Hong Kong last year that ultimately led to China’s crackdown.