The top US diplomat in Hong Kong said the imposition of the national security law had created an "atmosphere of coercion" that threatens both the SAR's freedoms and its standing as an international business hub.
In unusually strident remarks this week, US Consul-General Hanscom Smith called it "appalling" that Beijing's influence had "vilified" routine diplomatic activities such as meeting local activists, part of a government crackdown on foreign forces that was "casting a pall over the city".
In response, the Security Bureau said that "normal interactions and activities" were protected, and blamed external elements for interfering in the SAR during the 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," a representative said. He did not identify specific individuals or groups.
The foreign forces issue is at the heart of the crimes of "collusion" with foreign countries or "external elements" detailed in Article 29 of the security law, scholars say.
Article 29 outlaws a range of direct or indirect links with a "foreign country or an institution, organisation or individual" outside China, covering offences from the stealing of secrets and waging war to engaging in "hostile activities" and "provoking hatred". They can be punished by up to life in prison.
"People ... don't know where the red lines are, and it creates an atmosphere that's not just bad for fundamental freedoms, it's bad for business," Smith said.
"You can't have it both ways," he added. "You can't purport to be this global hub and at the same time invoke this kind of propaganda language criticising foreigners."
Government adviser and former security chief Regina Ip said it was only "China haters" who had reason to worry about falling afoul of the law.
Smith's comments come as other envoys, business people and activists have told of the chilling effect on their relationships and connections across China's most international city.
Private investigators say demand is surging among law firms, hedge funds and other businesses for security sweeps of offices and communications for surveillance tools, while diplomats describe discreet meetings with opposition figures, academics and clergy.
Fourteen Asian and Western diplomats who spoke to Reuters for this story said they were alarmed at attempts by Hong Kong prosecutors to treat links between local politicians and foreign envoys as potential national security threats.
In April, a judge cited emails from the US mission to former Civic Party legislator Jeremy Tam as a reason to deny him bail on a charge of conspiracy to commit subversion. Tam, one of 47 pro-democracy politicians charged, is in jail awaiting trial; his lawyer did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
"It's appalling that people would take a routine interaction with a foreign government representative and attribute something sinister to it," Smith said, adding that the consulate did not want to put anyone in an "awkward situation". (Reuters)
US consul hits out over 'foreign forces' crackdown
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