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Hong Kong's diplomats

Define a fixed ‘red line’ on limits of expression, France’s top envoy tells Hong Kong government

Outgoing French consul general Eric Berti says freedom of speech comes with its limits, according to country, and ‘autonomy does not mean independence’

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 2:00pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2018, 11:34pm

France’s top envoy in Hong Kong has waded into the debate on the city’s freedom of speech and urged the government to draw a “red line” that “must not always be changing” to define limits of expression.

Consul General Eric Berti, 59, who is due to finish his three-year term by the end of August, said a clearly laid-out framework on the matter was needed, much like in other countries.

He added that any such legislation should fully comply with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights under the UN, which Hong Kong is obliged to follow as stipulated in the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

According to Berti, freedom of expression in Hong Kong, as well as the rule of law and the judicial system, were what made the city attractive to investors and visitors. But while it enjoys certain liberties, “autonomy does not mean independence” from Beijing.

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In a candid and wide-ranging interview with the Post, he said: “I am confident [Beijing and Hong Kong] will find a balance.”

But the diplomat stopped short of saying if Hong Kong should enact national security legislation or Article 23 of the Basic Law, which would criminalise acts of treason, secession, sedition or subversion against the central government.

Local officials shelved the Article 23 bill in 2003 after half a million people took to the streets to oppose it, fearing an erosion of civil liberties. In April, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, denying that she was being pushed to act on the legislation by Beijing, had said “the time is not yet right”.

Speaking from his office in Admiralty, which faces the iconic Victoria Harbour, Berti spoke of the city’s stormy political backdrop.

“Both Beijing and Hong Kong are conscious they have to respect the ‘one country, two systems’ [principle] and define a red line,” he said.

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“But the red line must not always be changing to reduce, to a big extent, freedom of expression.”

In July last year, while in the city to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule, President Xi Jinping warned of crossing a “red line” that would undermine Chinese sovereignty.

Hong Kong has been embroiled in debate over political freedom, with authorities disqualifying people advocating independence or self-determination from running in elections.

In January, Demosisto’s Agnes Chow Ting was banned from the March by-election as her party’s stance on self-determination was deemed to be “unconstitutional”.

Earlier this month, in an unprecedented move, police launched a proposal to ban the Hong Kong National Party, a local separatist group. Co-founder Andy Chan Ho-tin was in 2016 barred from running in the Legislative Council elections.

Lau Siu-kai, vice-chairman of semi-official think tank the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies, described the move on Chan’s party as a warning against separatist politics in keeping with Beijing’s “red line”.

For France [the limits on freedom of expression will not concern] independence but it can be, for instance, on genocide
Consul General Eric Berti

Reflecting on local events, Berti highlighted that freedom was not absolute and cited his country as an example. He believed freedom, although enshrined in the French constitution, did not come without restrictions.

“For France [the limits on freedom of expression will not concern] independence but it can be, for instance, on genocide. We don’t accept any freedom of expression on this,” he said, referring to the Gayssot Act, a law enacted in 1990 which makes the contestation of crimes against humanity a punishable offence.

A number of figures were convicted under the act, including Robert Faurisson, a Franco-British historian and known holocaust denier.

Using abusive language against public servants or inciting racial hatred can also result in jail terms in France. Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, a French comedian known for mocking religions, was convicted multiple times for anti-Semitism and saw some of his performances banned.

Berti said he saw Hong Kong’s independence as an issue “Beijing cannot bear at all”, adding that he did not contest the one country, two systems policy that Hong Kong is part of China.

He said the principle allowed for Hong Kong’s autonomy, which Beijing cannot interfere in based on the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.

“Between independence and autonomy, Hong Kong is under one country, two systems and keeps its autonomy. For me, it is acceptable, of course – autonomy does not mean independence.”

During Berti’s time in office, he worked with two chief executives: Lam and her predecessor, Leung Chun-ying. He accompanied Leung to France in 2016 and, more recently, Lam in June.

Autonomy does not mean independence
Eric Berti

“Carrie is a woman of great determination, with a smiling and listening personality,” Berti said. “She is more political in her new capacity, knowing what people feel and what they need.”

Lam was a civil servant for decades before taking office as chief executive a year ago while Leung came largely from a business background.

On the thorny issue of housing, Berti said Hong Kong could consider a French initiative, which involved non-profit company Habitat et Humanisme building, buying and renovating homes for the needy in the past 30 years in France.

He said the proven initiative could complement Hong Kong’s housing policies while making homes more accessible to low-income families and the elderly.

Bidding farewell to Hong Kong, the diplomat said he would miss the MTR train services and French-owned tram services.

“I took MTR trains to cross the harbour three times a week on average, which is fast and safe,” he said, while showing off his contactless Octopus card tucked in his smartphone pouch.

Berti will return to Paris to work with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is expected to be succeeded by Alexandre Giorgini, currently spokesman of the ministry.