The political and social crisis in Hong Kong is a tough nut to crack for the new European Commission, which began work on December 1, led by President Ursula von der Leyen.
Although the European Union is concerned about Chinese policy towards Hong Kong, it is unlikely to push for legislation similar to the United States' Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, given that such a move could imperil its fruitful relationship with the special administrative region.
But things could change if the Chinese were to overplay their hand by continuing to lecture the Europeans on how they should treat the Hong Kong issue. After all, new EU foreign policy leader Josep Borrell announced on Monday that the bloc was working on its own version of the Magnitsky Act, which allows the US government to sanction individuals involved in human rights violations around the world.
The EU's global sanctions regime could possibly apply to Chinese and Hong Kong government officials responsible for "serious" human rights abuses.
Hong Kong is one of the EU's largest trading partners. It is also one of the bloc's major direct investment destinations, and is among the largest sources of foreign direct investment into Europe. Furthermore, 2,200 European companies are headquartered in Hong Kong - versus 1,344 from the US and, reportedly, about 1,400 from Japan.
Hong Kong is the ideal gateway for European businesses into the vast market of mainland China, and its special status and freedoms are seen as invaluable assets by the EU.
At the end of the annual meeting between Hong Kong and EU officials on November 28, Gunnar Wiegand, the managing director for Asia and the Pacific of the European External Action Service, took a veiled jab at China, saying the city's high level of autonomy, its rule of law and fundamental rights and freedoms as provided for under the "one country, two systems" arrangement were essential for the EU's relationship with it.
Since the start of unrest, the European bloc has voiced opposition to the use of violence in response to the escalating anti-government protests. European leaders, if asked, would deny it, but their hope for the future is that the former British colony will infect mainland China with the virus of democracy.
This explains the EU's emphasis on the introduction of universal suffrage, one of the five demands of the protest movement, when it has weighed in on Hong Kong's drama.
All that said, the only issues over which the Europeans are ready to confront the Chinese are likely to be trade and investment relations, and fifth-generation or 5G mobile network technology.
While they are forging ahead with their principled campaigns for Hong Kong, Tibet and Xinjiang - where the Chinese authorities are accused of detaining an estimated one million Muslims in re-education camps - they are also careful to make sure they do not put ties with Beijing at risk.
In contrast, the EU has been much less indulgent towards the Iranian government, which has recently quelled popular demonstrations against the high cost of living. On Sunday, foreign policy leader Borrell said the widespread and disproportionate use of force by Iran's security forces against nonviolent protesters was "unacceptable".
However, should the European public become irritated by Chinese meddling in their countries' political dynamics, which usually has to do with Europe's criticism of China's human rights record, EU leaders could be forced to drastically change their attitude towards the Chinese.
European governments, even the most progressive ones, are increasingly sensitive to nationalist and populist sentiment at home, and China's incursions into their domestic debate could have unintended consequences.
On November 29, the Chinese embassy in Rome slammed Italian lawmakers who had held a videoconference with Hong Kong democracy activist Joshua Wong Chi-fung the day before, saying they had "showed irresponsible conduct".
In response, Italian political forces condemned the "arrogance" of the Chinese, while the Italian foreign ministry said the Chinese embassy's statement was "wholly unacceptable and totally disrespectful of the sovereignty of the Italian parliament".
On December 3, the lower chamber of the Italian parliament approved a resolution calling for an inquiry into whether Hong Kong police have violated human rights during the turmoil.
Similarly, the Chinese embassy in London has tried to impose censorship in recent months, as Britain debates matters related to China.
In this regard, there seems to be a shift in the European public mood about China. For example, according to at least one survey, two-thirds of Germans believe their nation is too economically dependent on China, and think the government should adopt a tougher stance towards Beijing. A recent survey by the Pew Research Centre also reveals that major European countries (including Germany, France, Italy and Britain) have an unfavourable opinion of China.
If the Europeans were to start perceiving Chinese bullying as intolerable, and Chinese economic power as too dangerous, they could react to Beijing's handling of the Hong Kong unrest not only with their own Magnitsky Act, but also with asymmetric initiatives aimed at trade and investment, the 5G rollout and the Belt and Road Initiative.
Emanuele Scimia is an independent journalist and foreign affairs analyst
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