Kurt Tong is an American diplomat ~ he was the former US Consul General in Hong Kong from 2016 to 2019 ~ and businessman. He has, just recently, written an excellent article in Foreign Affairs in which he lays out what the US (and others) can and cannot do to help preserve Hong Kong’s (limited) freedom.
First, he tells us: “The goal of U.S. policymakers and others in the international community should be not to instigate change in Hong Kong but to reinforce the status quo. That means avoiding steps that would erode international confidence in the “one country, two systems” construct or would “punish China” with the unintended effect of also undermining Hong Kong.” In other words: America (and Australia, Britain and Canada, too) must not press for e.g. an independent Hong Kong. Hong Kong is part of China … full stop, and there is no useful purpose in wishing it was not so.
“In recent months,” he says, “U.S. officials have made a number of high-level declarative statements in support of Hong Kong’s autonomy and the “one country, two systems” paradigm. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for example, recently called for an end to violence and an independent review of Hong Kong police actions, while also reminding Beijing of its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration … [and that’s all well and good, but] … President Trump has sometimes confused matters by linking Hong Kong to the U.S.-China trade talks—mystifying China, which sees no such linkage … [and to further cloud the issue] … the Human Rights and Democracy legislation passed and signed in late November makes clear that Washington stands in support of a continued high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong … [which is consistent with supporting the status quo, but] … the legislation also raises a new risk for U.S. policy. Most significant, it requires the secretary of state to “certify,” on an annual basis, that Hong Kong has sufficient autonomy to be treated as separate from the rest of China for the purposes of the application of U.S. law. This distinct treatment under U.S. law means that the United States can apply different regulations to Hong Kong than it does to China, which allows for separate bilateral agreements and a much closer economic and cultural relationship.” That last bit is, probably, helpful ~ to America and to Hong Kong and, indirectly, to China, too. But, the new law, Mr Tong explains, might compel (or just allow) U.S. government to “precipitously “decertify” Hong Kong—a step that would have a dramatic, and damaging, impact on its external relations, its economic standing, and, by extension, its prospects for sustained autonomy.” In other words, the good intentions of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act might have exactly the opposite effects, endangering both.
“There are,” he says “ways for the United States to have a constructive impact on the future of Hong Kong:”
- First, “By treating it as an independent actor, and the nexus for information and ideas in Asia that it still is, Washington can meaningfully reinforce Hong Kong’s autonomy within the “one country, two systems” framework: and
- Second, By “focusing U.S. policy on supporting and strengthening Hong Kong will do far more good—and risk far less harm—than will attempts to compel changes in, or impose direct costs on, policy decisions originating in Beijing;”
“A proactive and forward-looking effort to support the city could include new government-to-government dialogues on investment rules, financial regulations, and Internet and data architecture,” he says, and “It could also include other initiatives that underscore the autonomy of Hong Kong, such as including it in the Visa Waiver or Preclearance travel programs. Last week, the Parliament of Australia approved a new free trade agreement with Hong Kong, as a way of locking in the benefits of Hong Kong’s autonomy. The United States should consider a similar approach.“
Kurt Tong suggests that “The United States should also pick up the tempo of high-level official visits to Hong Kong, at least once the dust from the current instability has settled. Members of Congress have visited in recent years, but the last cabinet-level visits were in 2016 and 2017; the secretary of state has not visited since 2011. Perhaps the next time the vice president gives a speech on China, he should do it from Hong Kong.” That’s a great idea and it is one that Canada should consider, too … if the prime minister is too timid the leader of the opposition should not be.
He concludes, and I agree that: “In the end, Hong Kong’s future course hinges on a question of confidence. If people in Hong Kong, in China, and around the world have confidence in its autonomy and the “one country, two systems” framework, that confidence will be self-reinforcing. For the United States, Hong Kong is a useful platform for the projection of open-society values and U.S. economic power in the Indo-Pacific. Washington’s goal should be to keep the Hong Kong paradigm viable at least until 2047—the end date of China’s stated guarantee of “one country, two systems”—if not beyond.“
I have said before that “one country, two systems,” which was Deng Xiaoping’s “offer” to both Hong Kong and Taiwan was based on the notion that both Hong Kong and China would change over 50 or 100 or even more years. The experience of Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Taiwan proves, without a doubt, that modern, liberal institutions, which are of demonstrated to producing and maintaining, for the long term, prosperity and social harmony, can be grafted onto deeply conservative, Confucian societies. And Singapore shows that a well managed, democratic state and a “one-party” state are not incompatible.
Mr Tong concludes, and again I agree, that “It may be tempting for Washington … [and for pundits and politicians everywhere] … to treat Hong Kong primarily as an opportunity to highlight the flaws of China’s approach to governance. But that will only heighten doubts about the future of Hong Kong—and thus hurt its prospects, despite a professed desire to save it. A better policy would emphasize the lasting value that the United States sees in the city’s unique system and do what it can to bolster international confidence in Hong Kong.” Those of us who really care about Hong Kong should heed his words and do what we can to bolster both international and, above all, Chinese confidence in “one country, two systems.”