Updated at 1:40 p.m. ET
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam is delaying the region's legislative elections by a year, citing a resurgence in coronavirus cases.
Critics decry the decision, seen as the latest in a series of recent moves that curb Hong Kong's limited autonomy. That autonomy was guaranteed for 50 years after the end of British rule and its handover to China in 1997.
Lam, who is backed by Beijing, invoked emergency powers — a holdover from the Chinese territory's colonial era — to postpone the elections, scheduled for Sept. 6, until September 2021.
It was "the toughest decision," Lam told reporters on Friday.
"But I have to have consider the public safety and the health condition for all the Hong Kong residents," she said, noting that the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus in Hong Kong has doubled in the past six weeks.
From June 13 to July 5, there were no locally transmitted cases in Hong Kong. Schools started reopening in late May but were shut down in mid-July, as the number of cases began to climb in what's been dubbed a third wave of infections. As of Friday evening, there were 3,273 cases in Hong Kong.
Lam said the central government in Beijing supports the delay.
But the White House was quick to respond to Hong Kong's announcement.
"We condemn the Hong Kong government's decision to postpone for one year its Legislative Council elections and to disqualify opposition candidates," White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany told reporters Friday morning. "This action undermines the democratic processes and freedoms that have underpinned Hong Kong's prosperity."
Lam's decision comes a month after Beijing imposed a controversial and sweeping national security law — passed in secret — on Hong Kong. The law bans subversion of state power, secession, terrorism and collusion with foreign entities — and carries a penalty of up to life in prison. This has heightened fears that Beijing is stripping away the freedoms that Hong Kong has enjoyed.
"The legal firewall, if you like, that separates the two systems [of Hong Kong and Beijing] is now gone," Alan Leong, a former chair of Hong Kong's bar association and chair of Hong Kong's Civic Party, told NPR's Emily Feng at the time. "We are allowing the long arms of the Chinese Communist Party to reach Hong Kong."
Earlier this week, Hong Kong disqualified 12 opposition candidates from running in legislative elections, citing their collusion with foreign forces and opposition to the national security law.
Also this week, Hong Kong police arrested four people for online statements. Police say the statements promote Hong Kong's independence from China, which is illegal under the national security law.
"What we're seeing here is four young people who are potentially facing quite serious jail time simply for expressing their political views online," Joshua Rosenzweig of Amnesty International in Hong Kong told NPR's John Ruwitch. "Under international human rights law, blanket prohibitions of peaceful expression are just not allowed."
Friday's announcement by Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive, marks the second time she has invoked emergency powers since assuming office in 2017. The first time occurred in October 2019, Feng reported, to ban face masks in public gatherings amid anti-government protests. Before that, the ordinance had not been used since 1967.