22 July 2019
Kurt W. Tong was formerly U.S. consul general for Hong Kong and Macau.
When I left my post as U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong recently, news organizations reported that the White House had effectively censored my valedictory remarks, as President Donald Trump apparently did not want to disrupt trade negotiations with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The Washington Post went so far as to say I’d been “neutered.”
Put the short-term politics aside. What matters is figuring out what’s really driving Hong Kong’s current unrest, and what the governments of Hong Kong, China and the U.S. should do about it.
The U.S. has more at stake here than many Americans realize. Opening doors to free and fair trade, with China and other partners, has been a consistent core interest of the U.S. in the western Pacific. Hong Kong has been at the center of that effort ever since the U.S. first opened its consulate in the city 175 years ago.
Today, Hong Kong deserves America’s commercial, financial and strategic respect and support because its economy and society are positive models for all of Asia. The city shows how open markets and transparent governance work together to create prosperity. The city’s value is buttressed by its rule of law -- not just rule by law -- and by its independent judiciary and sense of fair play.
That’s why more U.S. businesses -- close to 1,400 of them -- now operate in Hong Kong than when the British returned their onetime colony to China in 1997. Many important American firms, especially in finance and services, continue to favor the city for their Asian headquarters.
Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is the necessary ingredient for this success. China’s growing encroachments on that autonomy, however, pose a very real threat to the city’s special status and future competitiveness.
During my three years as U.S. Consul, I saw Beijing’s interference take many forms: the disqualification of electoral candidates based on their political views; the banning of political organizations; and the prosecution of political activists for encouraging others to peacefully block traffic five years ago.
This year was marked by the Hong Kong government’s dramatic miscalculation to rush through legislation allowing extraditions for trial in mainland China’s unfair courts. A record number of citizens took to the streets in opposition; protests have continued even after Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam declared the legislation effectively “dead.”
This outcry is proof that leaders in Beijing have thoroughly underestimated the social anxiety and tensions inherent in the “one country, two systems” construct -- exacerbated of course by glaring economic inequalities within Hong Kong society. A more accurate formulation might be “same bed, different dreams.”
That reality requires much more careful handling. Most important, Beijing needs to not fret so much about Hong Kong and its freedoms of expression. It should be confident in the city’s future and its positive role inside China.
Let’s be serious: No outside power wants to see a “color revolution” in Hong Kong. Foreign investors hope only to preserve the status quo -- a Hong Kong that is stable, rules-based, transparent and open; one that is part of China but a uniquely easy place to do business.
The bigger problem is how the incentives for China to interfere in Hong Kong are becoming institutionalized. The Chinese governmental organizations handling Hong Kong affairs are now so large that they have good bureaucratic reasons to eschew the “less is more” approach that the situation requires. Chinese leaders need to realize they could destroy Hong Kong’s economic specialness if they keep trying to align its political culture with mainland norms.
Hong Kong’s city leaders, on the other hand, need to stay in closer touch with their people’s aspirations. Autonomy is a “use it or lose it” proposition. They must firmly embrace the notion that Hong Kong’s dual identity is an opportunity, not a burden, and convey that message to Beijing.
Hong Kong is both the most prosperous city in the world’s largest nation and a place with its own cosmopolitan identity and a degree of interconnectedness with the globe that is unique in Asia. Its leaders should double down on being “Asia’s World City.” Commitment to this idea faded in recent years, as Hong Kong leaders devoted energy to echoing mainland priorities.
A renewed international push should include more outreach to the U.S., which is, after all, Hong Kong’s most important economic and cultural partner outside China. And the U.S. should reciprocate. In my final message home to Washington, I urged colleagues to recognize the city’s abiding strengths. After all, a couple million people validated last month that Hong Kong remains very different from mainland China.
Most important, U.S. leaders should always remember that the city isn’t a card to be played against Beijing -- neither a means of highlighting flaws in the mainland’s governance when it suits us, nor a token to be exchanged for concessions in trade talks. Rather, Hong Kong is a vision of what we should want China, and indeed much of the rest of Asia, to look like. We should seek ways to bolster its strengths.
[Sentimental, but without any real reasons for why the US should... intervene. Really, what does Tong expect the US to do? HK may have be a Special Administrative Region, but that is clearly at the discretion of Beijing.
I sympathise with the HKers. I can imagine how helpless they are feeling. I can understand their frustration and desperation. And I wish them well.
But what should the International community do? Has China or the Chief Executive of HK done anything illegal?
The only thing they have been guilty of, is being insensitive and tactless.
But even if I am wrong and there is a case for the US to... "defend" HK. I assume this "defence" is more diplomatic and not militarily? Clearly, there is not even a hint or suggestion that the US should defend HK other than with diplomatic words.
So, say the US clumsily attempts to engage China. What?
The fate of HK is already cast. China is not giving up her territory. Not HK. Not even Taiwan.
This... valedictory remark is sentimental, but ultimately pointless and in-actionable.
China's Foreign Ministry:
"The US should know one thing, that Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong, and we do not allow any foreign interference,"]