China’s assaults on ‘overseas forces’ threaten Hong Kong’s international standing -top U.S. envoy By Reuters

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Hanscom Smith, the U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong and Macau, attends a meeting in Hong Kong, China on May 17, 2021. REUTERS / Tyrone Siu

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By Greg Torode, Anne Marie Roantree, and James Pomfret

HONG KONG (Reuters) – The leading US diplomat in Hong Kong said the imposition of a new national security law created an “atmosphere of coercion” that threatens both the city’s freedoms and its position as an international business hub.

In unusually high-pitched remarks to Reuters this week, US Consul General Hanscom Smith called it “appalling” that Beijing’s influence had “vilified” routine diplomatic activities such as meeting local activists as part of a government crackdown on foreign forces that was “a disgrace.” “Made over town”.

Smith’s remarks underscore the growing concern among many officials in President Joe Biden’s administration over the severely deteriorating freedoms in Hong Kong a year after the law was passed by the Chinese parliament. Critics of the legislation say the law destroyed the city’s democratic opposition, civil society and Western freedoms.

The issue of foreign armed forces is at the center of the crimes of “collusion” with foreign countries or “external elements” described in Article 29 of the Security Act, scientists say.

Article 29 prohibits a variety of direct or indirect links with a “foreign country or institution, organization or individual” outside of Greater China, including crimes ranging from secret theft and waging war to “hostile activity” and “provoking hatred”. They can be punished with up to life imprisonment.

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

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

Smith is a US field service officer with extensive experience in China and the wider region. He served in Shanghai, Beijing and Taiwan before arriving in Hong Kong in July 2019 on Wednesday after Reuters sought the consulate’s views on the implications of the national security law.

In a response to Reuters, the Hong Kong Security Bureau said “normal interactions and activities” are safe and accused outside elements of meddling in the city during the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

“There are indications in investigations and intelligence agencies that foreign interventions with money, relief supplies and other forms of support have been widespread,” said a representative. He didn’t want to identify any particular people or groups.

Government advisor and former security chief Regina Ip told Reuters that it was only “China haters” who had cause for concern about breaking the law.

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

Smith’s comments come after other envoys, businessmen and activists told Reuters about the chilling effects on their relationships and connections in China’s most international city.

Private investigators say there is increasing demand from law firms, hedge funds and other companies for office security searches and communications equipment for surveillance tools, while diplomats describe discreet meetings with opposition figures, academics and clergy.

Fourteen Asian and Western diplomats, who spoke to Reuters about the story, said they were alarmed by Hong Kong prosecutors’ attempts to treat links between local politicians and foreign envoys as a potential national security threat.

In April, a judge cited emails from the US Mission to former Democratic legislature Jeremy Tam as a reason for denying him bail for conspiracy to commit Subversion. Tam, one of 47 pro-democratic politicians accused, is in prison awaiting trial; his lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“It is appalling that people are routinely dealing with a foreign government official and attributing something sinister to him,” said Smith, adding that the consulate did not want to put anyone in an “uncomfortable situation”.

In the recent escalation of tensions with Western nations, Hong Kong slammed a British government report on Friday that Beijing was using the security law to “drastically restrict” freedoms in the city.

The Hong Kong authorities this week also criticized the European Union for denouncing Hong Kong’s recent overhaul of its political system.

‘STRONG FALLS’ LOOM

Although local officials said last year that the security law would only affect a “small minority” of people, more than 100 have been arrested under the law, which the interviewees said has spanned education, media, civil society and religious freedom among others History.

Some have raised concerns that the regulations would harm the business community, a proposal that Ip rejected.

“I think they have nothing to fear unless they are eager to use outside forces to harm Hong Kong,” said Ip. “I speak to a lot of business people who are very optimistic about the economic situation.”

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

Hong Kong’s judiciary said they would not comment on individual cases.

Smith said Hong Kong’s growing atmosphere of “fear, coercion and insecurity” is threatening the future of the Special Administrative Region.

“It was very disturbing to see this relentless assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms and the withdrawal of the commitment made to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy,” he said.

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