Reflections on a Summer of Discontent in Hong Kong

featured in American Ambassadors Review, Fall 2019

by Ambassador Kurt W. Tong

The summer of 2019, with all its compelling political drama, will certainly be remembered as a pivotal moment in the history of Hong Kong.

In the end, however, will 2019 will be remembered as a tragic turning point, heralding Hong Kong’s increasing instability and irrelevancy in the coming years? Or, optimistically, will future historians see this year as a moment when Hong Kong’s key stakeholders, inside and outside the city, were sufficiently reminded of the city’s special value and characteristics to do what is necessary to keep its “one country, two systems” dream alive?

The answers to this set of questions will have important implications for the national interests of the United States in the Indo-Pacific region.

A Hong Kong Consul General in the American Tradition

For me personally, it was a great honor to represent the U.S. government and American people in Hong Kong from August 2016 to July 2019. My top priority was the same as that of my predecessors—to affirm and reinforce the deep cultural and business ties between the American and Hong Kong peoples and economies. Those ties have stretched across time and distance, renewed by multiple generations.

I took inspiration in my work from the early history of America’s participation in the growth and modernization of Hong Kong. The U.S. Consulate General in Hong Kong has been open for more years than any other U.S. diplomatic mission in Asia. My reading of that history led me to two firm conclusions:

  • First, the United States has long-term and abiding interests in this region, which have lasted for centuries and will continue for centuries to come.

  • Second, America’s goals here have been remarkably consistent, despite many changes in leadership and technology.

Speaking at the opening of an exhibit on early 19th-century U.S.–China trade at Hong Kong’s Maritime Museum in early 2019, I noted that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.” A consistent core interest of the United States in the Western Pacific has been opening doors to free and fair trade with China and other partners—and Hong Kong has been at the center of all that.

Speaking on the hangar deck of the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan when it moored in Victoria Harbor in October 2018, I noted that for the past two hundred years, “America’s vision for the Indo-Pacific has been one and the same: a vision of open ports and open doors, and of stability and free commerce, with all nations committed to an open and fair architecture for commerce in the Indo-Pacific.”

America’s vision for the Indo-Pacific has been one and the same: a vision of open ports and open doors, and of stability and free commerce, with all nations committed to an open and fair architecture for commerce.

Why the United States Values Hong Kong

Hong Kong has long attracted American attention because its economy and governance stand out as positive models for all of Asia. The city points the way for others in the region by showing how open markets and good governance can reinforce one another, thereby creating prosperity.

Hong Kong is also remarkable for its respect for the rule of law—not just rule by law—for its independent judiciary and for its sense of fair play. These are all attributes that are made possible and sustained by Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, as codified in its Basic Law, which grew from the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984.

Hong Kong’s reliable common law legal system is indeed a key attribute that continues to attract new American businesses to Hong Kong, year after year. There are now close to 1,400 U.S. businesses operating in Hong Kong, significantly more than there were at the time of the “handover” of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in 1997. Moreover, American firms, to a greater extent than European or Japanese companies, continue to favor Hong Kong for their Asian regional headquarters.

In the broader construct of America’s relations with the Indo-Pacific, particularly our relations with China, Hong Kong plays a crucial role in the fostering of teamwork by businesses, government agencies, academic institutions, media companies and cultural organizations.

It is also noteworthy that Americans and Hongkongers share a profound love of personal freedom, including freedom of expression. We have certainly seen that passion for personal freedom on display this past summer.

Hong Kong’s freedom of expression is why American scholars and journalists, as well as information businesses, appreciate Hong Kong so much, since it is a place where they can explore their ideas in relative liberty.

In short, Hong Kong’s core values—openness, fair play, freedom, respect for diversity and an embrace of internationalism—are the key reasons why Americans value Hong Kong so much. And those core values are also the reason why Hong Kong is, in general, such a success story.

Hong Kong’s Autonomy: the Foundation of Its Success Since 1997

America’s attraction to Hong Kong is thus based on Hong Kong’s distinctiveness within the Chinese system—which is, in turn, based on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy within China, as well as the overall integrity of the “one country, two systems” framework.

America’s formal relations with the Special Administrative Region are founded on the legal assumption that Hong Kong can and will retain its high degree of autonomy— except, of course, in matters of defense and foreign affairs—as guaranteed in the Basic Law.

This situation is a matter of American law, as enacted in the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act. But it is also a matter of practicality.

Autonomy is the critical platform that enables Hong Kong to retain and maintain its liberal free market economy and its democratic aspirations and civil liberties, within the context of being part of the People’s Republic of China. Mainland China, of course, operates according to a very different system of governance.

Without autonomy for Hong Kong, its “capitalist system and way of life,” as the Basic Law provides, could not survive, and Hong Kong could risk being subsumed by “socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

Three Years in Hong Kong

When I first arrived in Hong Kong in 2016, I did a fair amount of listening. I consulted with a wide spectrum of people from the business sector and civil society, as well as the Hong Kong Government. I visited universities and met with NGOs. I started a public campaign to visit every district in Hong Kong. I met with every member of the Legislative Council and the Executive Council and the Court of Final Appeals.

After this intensive listening, I came away with a profound [sense] of the great strength and resilience of Hong Kong—of both its people and its institutions. However, I also came away with a profound sense of growing anxiety over Hong Kong’s future.

My first policy address, to the Foreign Correspondents Club in 2017, took as its central theme “Anxiety and Confidence in Hong Kong.” I gave similar remarks later that year to a Washington audience, titled “Risks and Opportunities in Hong Kong.”

Throughout 2017 and 2018, I endeavored to send a concerted, if nuanced message: The United States values Hong Kong, but sees negative trends. The starting point for Hong Kong’s level of autonomy is indeed quite high, I said, but the direction is worrisome, and the most important Mainland policymakers are showing less respect for the city’s distinctive characteristics and separate political space.

I also stressed that autonomy can be a “use it or lose it” proposition. I called on Hong Kong leaders to be more bold in the international space, and to use Hong Kong’s unique “demonstration power” as one of the region’s most successful societies to more powerfully benefit this city, the rest of China and the entire Indo-Pacific area, including the United States.

In my final year, however, Hong Kong saw continuing and worsening trends of diminishing autonomy, less confidence and elevated anxiety. This was no doubt a result of the accelerating tempo of actions, taken either by the Central Government or by the Hong Kong Government as a proxy, which seemed to undermine the high degree of autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that everyone values. Over the course of that year, some noteworthy developments included the decision to allow Mainland criminal law to be fully applied in Hong Kong’s new high-speed train station; the disqualification of electoral candidates based on their political views; the outright banning of a political organization (a first for Hong Kong); the expulsion of a respected foreign journalist for hosting a speech by that same organization and the jailing of political activists for encouraging others to peacefully block traffic five years ago.

Then, in February 2019, I made a public statement that prompted pro-Beijing elements in the city to dispatch daily protest groups to the front of our Consulate building on Garden Road to demand my resignation.

Buried deep in a speech at the American Club, which was mostly about praising Hong Kong’s free market economy policy, I noted that “the Central Government’s desire to influence and control political conversations and events in Hong Kong could negatively impact the functioning of the economy and the international business community’s role here.”