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EXCLUSIVE China’s attacks on ‘foreign forces’ threaten global envoy at the helm of Hong Kong

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Hanscom Smith, US Consul General in Hong Kong and Macau attends a meeting in Hong Kong, China, May 17, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu

The top US diplomat in Hong Kong said the enactment of a new national security law had created an “atmosphere of coercion” that threatens both the city’s freedoms and its position as an international business hub.

In extremely harsh remarks to Reuters this week, U.S. Consul General Hanscom Smith called it “terrible” that Beijing’s influence had “underestimated” routine diplomatic activities such as meeting with local activists, part of a government crackdown on forces. foreign that was “throwing down” over the city “.

Smith’s remarks underscore deepening concerns about Hong Kong’s significantly deteriorating freedoms among many officials in President Joe Biden’s administration a year after China’s parliament passed the law. Critics of the legislation say the law has suppressed the city’s democratic opposition, civil society and Western-style freedoms.

The issue of foreign forces is at the heart of crimes of “co-operation” with foreign countries or “foreign elements” detailed in Article 29 of the security law, the researchers say.

Article 29 outlaws a number of direct or indirect links with a “foreign country or an institution, organization or individual” outside Greater China, covering criminal offenses ranging from stealing secrets and war to engaging in “hostile activity”; and “provocation of hatred.” They can be sentenced to life imprisonment.

“People … do not know where the red lines are and it creates an atmosphere that is not only bad for fundamental freedoms, but it is also bad for business,” Smith said.

“You can’t have them both ways,” he added. “You can not claim to be this global hub and at the same time call this kind of propaganda language that criticizes foreigners.”

Smith is a U.S. career foreign service officer who has deep experience in China and the wider region, serving in Shanghai, Beijing and Taiwan before arriving in Hong Kong in July 2019. He made his comments in an interview at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Hong Kong on Wednesday after Reuters sought the consulate’s views on the impact of national security law.

In a 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 involving Hong Kong in 2019.

“There are indications in investigations and intelligence that foreign interference was rampant with money, supplies and other forms of support,” a representative said. He did not identify specific individuals or groups.

Government adviser and former security chief Regina Ip told Reuters it was only “China haters” who had reason to worry about breaking the law.

“There must be criminal intent, not just casual conversation,” she said.

Smith’s comments come as other envoys, business people and activists have told Reuters about the shocking effect on their relationships and connections across China’s most international city.

Private investigators say demand is growing among law firms, defense funds and other businesses to scrap office security and communications for surveillance tools, while diplomats describe discreet meetings with opposition figures, academics and clerics.

Fourteen Asian and Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters about the story said they were alarmed at the efforts of Hong Kong prosecutors to treat links between domestic politicians and foreign envoys as potential threats to national security.

In April, a judge cited emails from the U.S. mission to former Democratic lawmaker Jeremy Tam as a reason to deny him the condition of the conspiracy charge to carry out the overthrow. Tam, one of the 47 accused pro-democracy politicians, is in jail awaiting trial; his lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It is appalling that people would take a routine interaction with a foreign government representative and attribute something bad to it,” Smith said, adding that the consulate did not want to put anyone in a “difficult situation.” .

In the latest clash of tensions with Western nations, Hong Kong on Friday struck a report from the UK government that said Beijing was using security law to “drastically restrict freedoms” in the city. Read more

Hong Kong authorities also this week criticized the European Union for denouncing the latest review of its political system in Hong Kong.

LOOM ‘RETURNS’

Although local officials said last year the security law would only affect a “small minority” of people, more than 100 have been arrested under the law, which has affected education, media, civil society and religious freedom among other areas. according to those interviewed for this story.

Some have raised concerns that the provisions would harm the business community, a suggestion that Ip rejected.

“I think they have nothing to worry about if they are not determined to use outside forces to harm Hong Kong,” Ip said. “I talk to a lot of businessmen who are very clumsy about the economic situation.”

Retired judges familiar with cases such as Jeremy Tam said they were shocked by the widespread use of foreign connections by prosecutors. One told Reuters he did not see how sustainable this approach would be, as the government accredits diplomats whose job it is to meet people, including politicians.

Hong Kong Justice said it would not comment on individual issues.

Smith said Hong Kong’s growing atmosphere of “fear, coercion and insecurity” threatens the future of the special administrative region.

“It has been very disturbing to this ruthless attack on Hong Kong freedoms and the pursuit of the commitment made to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy,” he said.

Our standards: Principles of Trust of Thomson Reuters.

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