Top US diplomat in Hong Kong said the imposition of a new national security law created an “atmosphere of coercion” that threatened both the city’s freedoms and its status as a hub of international affairs .
In unusually strident remarks to Reuters this week, US Consul General Hanscom Smith called it “appalling” that Beijing’s influence has “vilified” routine diplomatic activities such as meeting with local activists, as part of a government crackdown on foreign forces which “throws a veil over the city”.
Smith’s remarks highlight growing concerns over the sharp deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong among many officials in President Joe Biden’s administration a year after the Chinese parliament imposed the law. Critics of the legislation say the law has crushed the city’s democratic opposition, civil society and Western-style freedoms.
The issue of foreign forces is at the heart of crimes of “collusion” with foreign countries or “external elements” detailed in Article 29 of the Security Act, according to academics.
Article 29 prohibits a series of direct or indirect links with any “foreign country or institution, organization or individual” outside of Greater China, covering offenses ranging from theft of secrets and war to participation in “hostile activities” and “incitement to hatred”. They can be punished with life imprisonment.
“People… don’t know where the red lines are, and it creates an atmosphere that isn’t just bad for fundamental freedoms, it’s bad for business,” Smith said.
“You cannot have it both ways,” he added. “You cannot pretend to be this global hub and at the same time invoke this kind of propaganda language criticizing foreigners. “
Smith is a career U.S. Foreign Service officer with extensive experience in China and the wider region, serving in Shanghai, Beijing and Taiwan before arriving in Hong Kong in July 2019. He commented in an interview with the American diplomatic mission in Hong Kong. Wednesday after Reuters asked the consulate for advice on the impact of the national security law.
In response to Reuters, the Hong Kong Security Bureau said “normal interactions and activities” were protected and blamed outside elements for interfering in the city during protests that engulfed Hong Kong in 2019.
“There are indications in investigations and intelligence that foreign intervention was rampant with money, supplies and other forms of support,” one official said. He did not want to identify specific individuals or groups.
Government adviser and former security chief Regina Ip told Reuters that only “haters of China” had reason to fear breaking the law.
“There has to be criminal intent, not just casual conversation,” she said.
Smith’s comments come as other envoys, businessmen and activists told Reuters the crippling effect on their relations and relationships in China’s most international city.
Private investigators say demand is increasing among law firms, hedge funds and other companies for office and communications security sweeps for surveillance tools, while diplomats describe low-key meetings with VIPs opposition, academics and clergy.
Fourteen Asian and Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters for the story said they were alarmed by attempts by Hong Kong prosecutors to treat ties between local politicians and foreign envoys as potential threats to national security.
In April, a judge cited emails from the US mission to former Democratic lawmaker Jeremy Tam to deny him bail for conspiring to commit acts of subversion. Tam, one of the 47 indicted pro-democracy politicians, is in prison awaiting trial; his lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
“It’s appalling that people take a routine interaction with a foreign government official and attribute something sinister to him,” Smith said, adding that the consulate didn’t want to put anyone in an “awkward position.”
In the latest escalation of tensions with Western countries, Hong Kong criticized a British government report on Friday that Beijing was using the security law to “severely restrict freedoms” in the city.
Hong Kong officials also this week blasted the European Union for denouncing Hong Kong’s recent overhaul of its political system.
LOOM « TOUGH CASES »
Although local officials said last year that the security law would affect only a “tiny minority” of people, more than 100 people have been arrested under the law, affecting education , the media, civil society and religious freedoms among others, according to interviewees. for this story.
Some expressed concern that the provisions would harm the business community, a suggestion Ip rejected.
“I think they have nothing to fear unless they are determined to use outside forces to harm Hong Kong,” Ip said. “I talk to a lot of businessmen who are very optimistic about the economic situation. “
Retired judges familiar with cases such as Jeremy Tam’s said they were shocked at the widespread reliance on foreign relations by prosecutors. One told Reuters he did not see how this approach would be sustainable because the government accredits diplomats, whose job it is to meet people, including politicians.
Hong Kong justice said it would not comment on individual cases.
Smith said the growing atmosphere of “fear, coercion and uncertainty” in Hong Kong was jeopardizing the future of the special administrative region.
“It has been very painful for this relentless attack on Hong Kong freedoms and the rollback of the commitment that has been made to preserve Hong Kong autonomy,” he said.
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