Just weeks after starting work in Hong Kong, the European Union’s new envoy said he had noticed “worrying signs” about the way various sectors in the city were responding to the national security law.
Thomas Gnocchi, an Italian national who took over as head of the EU Office to Hong Kong and Macau, said the new law introduced by Beijing on June 30 was having a widespread impact beyond its scope.
“We are seeing different sectors of society changing their behaviour. This is worrying for us,” he told the Post last week in his first media interview since arriving early last month.
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“Self-censorship is foremost in their thoughts and they feel the need to change their behaviour. We see schools having to change their curriculum, we see journalists changing the ways they report.”
Gnocchi said the EU business community, which is the second-largest in Hong Kong, would closely follow how the new law was implemented.
“The feeling I get from my contacts with them is that they are in a kind of wait-and-see mood,” he said. “They are monitoring developments in Hong Kong with some concern, such as the impact on the rule of law.”
After months of increasingly violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong last year, Beijing drafted the national security law for the city, outlawing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.
Legal experts and opposition politicians have warned that the law, with vaguely defined offences and sweeping new powers for the police and mainland agents, poses a threat to freedoms in the city.
Gnocchi’s Spanish predecessor, Carmen Cano de Lasala, told the Post before leaving in August that Hong Kong’s international image had been damaged by the introduction of the law.
Gnocchi said one of his duties would be to convey the EU’s concerns about the law to the Hong Kong government.
“Hong Kong is a place where certain fundamental freedoms should be upheld. One of the fundamental principles for us is the independence of the judiciary in Hong Kong, and this should be maintained,” he said. “A crucial part in this is how the judiciary positions itself in implementing the national security law.”
Hong Kong’s courts have come under intense scrutiny in recent months, with members of opposition and pro-establishment camps criticising various rulings.
It led Chief Justice Geoffrey Ma Tao-li to issue an 18-page statement last month, warning against politicising the judiciary, and saying that any criticism of the courts and judges without proper grounds would be detrimental to public confidence in the system.
Gnocchi said the rule of law was fundamental to business confidence, and while EU firms remained committed to the city, they were tracking developments.
European Union firms created “a significant business community here but it is not limited to business relationship”, he said.
The envoy pointed to the bloc’s extensive relations with Hong Kong across the board. “We have exchanges and cooperation in the field of culture and scientific research. We cooperated on various fields from intellectual property rights to customs cooperation,” he said.
There are 1,600 EU companies operating in Hong Kong, the most after mainland China.
Gnocchi, a career diplomat educated at the London School of Economics, Yale University in the US and Tianjin University in China, said he hoped to meet as many people as possible across the political spectrum and had begun reaching out to people from all walks of life.
Asked if he was concerned that EU diplomats might face restrictions similar to those imposed on their American counterparts, he said: “So far, there haven’t been any issues in meetings I have been involved in.”
The Post reported last week that American diplomats have been told they must obtain approval from Beijing’s foreign ministry before meeting Hong Kong government officials or personnel from educational institutions and societies.
That new rule, a response to Washington’s steps to limit the movement of Chinese envoys in the United States, appears to cover meetings between American diplomats and members of local political parties as well.
Aware of calls by Hong Kong opposition parties and activists for greater democracy, Gnocchi said he saw no reason why electoral reform should not proceed to give the city’s government more support and legitimacy.
“Our view is that electoral reform that produces a democratic, fair, transparent system should be encouraged. The issue of universal suffrage is also included in the Basic Law,” he said, referring to the city’s mini-constitution.
This article New EU envoy to Hong Kong sees ‘changing behaviour’ sparked by jitters over national security law first appeared on South China Morning Post