U.S. Consul General Hanscom Smith Farewell Remarks

U.S. Consul General Hanscom Smith Farewell Remarks

American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong
July 11, 2022

(As prepared for delivery)

I. America’s vision for Hong Kong

America’s vision for Hong Kong is simple: We support a stable, prosperous Hong Kong that enjoys the high degree of autonomy Beijing promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a legally binding international agreement. Unlike the policies of both the Beijing and Hong Kong governments, which have changed to the detriment of Hong Kongers and Hong Kong’s status as a global hub, U.S. policy toward Hong Kong has been consistent and will not waver.

We call on Beijing to let people in Hong Kong enjoy the rights and freedoms promised in the Joint Declaration and that are guaranteed under the Basic Law.

Let me be clear from the outset, so there is no misunderstanding: The United States recognizes that Hong Kong is part of China. We do not support Hong Kong independence.

We simply ask Beijing to honor the terms of the Joint Declaration, an international agreement, and give the city the autonomy Beijing promised.

We believe a strong, prosperous Hong Kong is in the best interest of Mainland China, Hong Kong, and the United States, and we have many common interests, from trade and investment to fighting transnational crime.

Last month, Secretary of State Blinken re-affirmed that, “we’ve put diplomacy back at the center of American foreign policy to help us realize the future that Americans and people around the world seek.” As he said, that future is “one where technology is used to lift people up, not suppress them; where trade and commerce support workers, raise incomes, create opportunity; where universal human rights are respected; countries are secure from coercion and aggression, and people, ideas, goods, and capital move freely; and where nations can both forge their own paths and work together effectively in common cause.”

However, there are many areas where we fundamentally disagree. We will continue to speak out when Mainland and Hong Kong officials further undermine the city’s high degree of autonomy, protected rights and freedoms, or democratic institutions. We will continue to hold the authorities responsible for their repression and broken promises. The United States will also continue to work with allies and partners to support people in Hong Kong.

Our message is simple: We want Hong Kong to succeed. Let Hong Kong be Hong Kong.

II. Consistent U.S. government support for One Country, Two Systems and Hong Kong’s autonomy

To maintain Hong Kong’s stability and continued prosperity in anticipation of its reversion to the PRC in 1997, the United Kingdom and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) negotiated the Sino-British Joint Declaration, an international agreement. By signing this legally binding agreement, the PRC) undertook to uphold, until at least 2047, freedoms of speech, of the press, and of assembly. The PRC also agreed to maintain the independent judiciary and stated that laws then in force in Hong Kong would “remain basically unchanged.”

When it was launched, “One Country, Two Systems” was a new concept, and a good faith effort by both the United Kingdom and the PRC to create a viable system in which Hong Kong could continue to thrive after it returned to Beijing’s control.

The Joint Declaration, the “One Country, Two Systems” framework, and the Basic Law created the legal foundation for the city’s continued dynamism after 1997.

In anticipation of the 1997 handover, the United States also made an important contribution to Hong Kong’s sustained success by passing the Hong Kong Policy Act, which supported the foreign policy objective of ensuring that our relationship with Hong Kong was consistent with the “high degree of autonomy” promised in the Joint Declaration.

It is important to remember that there was no guarantee “One Country, Two Systems” would work in practice. But for many years after 1997, that framework served everyone well: Hong Kong flourished as a global financial and business center, to the benefit of Mainland China, Hong Kong’s partners, and Hong Kongers themselves. In practice, the system reassured others in the region and around the world that Beijing – if it was true to its word – could be flexible and confident.

At the same time, the freedoms of expression, assembly, association, press, and religion were largely honored in ways that benefited Hong Kongers in their daily lives and served as the basis for the city’s development as a global services hub.

Hours before the 1997 handover ceremony, then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright stated, “It is said accurately that Hong Kong is the glittering jewel in Asia’s economic emergence. But it owes its success not to the glitter of gold but to the gold of principle. The ability of journalists to tell it like it is, of legislators to raise their voices in dissent, of businesspeople to know that their agreements will be honored, and of residents to know that the courts are fair and the civil service accountable to all, not just a handful of powers that be.”

Respect for these freedoms made Hong Kong the most developed part of China and a shining example to many around the world.

But can it still be said that the “gold of principle” in Hong Kong shines with luster? In recent years, the PRC has taken step after step to dismantle and destroy Hong Kong’s freedoms and the “high degree of autonomy” it was promised.

While there is heightened focus now on the implementation and consequences of the National Security Law, as well as with Beijing’s recent steps to render Hong Kong’s electoral system and government less representative and less accountable, the PRC’s assault on Hong Kong’s institutions has been ongoing for years. Examples include: the forced shuttering of independent press and the imprisonment of journalists. Politicians arrested for running in elections. Teachers fired for inculcating critical thinking skills. The Tiananmen Massacre has become a forbidden topic. “Patriotism” has become a cudgel to drive reform-minded leaders out of Hong Kong’s professional associations, including for lawyers, educators, and health professionals. There is a reason that many in Hong Kong are streaming for the exits and voting with their feet. The ones who remain are being intimidated into self-censorship. We agree with the United Kingdom that Beijing is in a state of ongoing non-compliance with the Joint Declaration.

We must not forget that what brought millions of Hong Kongers onto the street was not a desire for independence but rather for the freedoms and autonomy they were promised. They wanted accountability from their government and from their Chief Executive. And they still do.

Although protests have been stifled, and activists and everyday people have been cowed into silence by the National Security Law, the root causes of the 2019 protest movement have not changed. The people of Hong Kong want what they were promised.

Blaming “foreign forces” for unrest and violence, a beloved trope of authoritarian governments, is merely the PRC leadership’s effort to shirk responsibility and pin its shortcomings on a foreign scapegoat.

Efforts to depict Hong Kong as a “pawn” in a great power struggle are another attempt to evade the truth: America’s policy on Hong Kong has been steadfast for decades.

Every step we have taken has been in response to failures by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments to honor commitments regarding the city’s status, which is the subject of an international treaty.

We have consistently supported the bedrock principles that the residents of Hong Kong were promised under the Joint Declaration. Ensuring a stable, prosperous, and vibrant Hong Kong per the Joint Declaration and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework has always been the cornerstone of our policy.

III. Diplomatic engagement and role of the U.S. Consulate General

We care about Hong Kong because the United States has an enormous stake in Hong Kong’s future — from our vast economic and business engagement to the enduring ties between our people. We also care about Hong Kong because we value compliance with international agreements and the primacy of the rule of law.

The United States’ long friendship with Hong Kong blossomed on the strength of the shared values between Americans and Hong Kongers: commitment to economic opportunity, devotion to education, and fundamental respect for the importance of openness and free exchange.

Over the decades, as Hong Kong grew into a global hub and prospered, so too did the U.S.-Hong Kong relationship. Given the strength of our connections and the city’s vital role in the world economy, the United States has always had a strong interest in a stable and prosperous Hong Kong.

We also care about Hong Kong because of the deep ties between us. The approximately 70,000 U.S. citizens who call Hong Kong home reflect the strength of our relationship – of business connections, professional and educational linkages, and family ties that span the ocean.

Likewise, there is also a long history of Hong Kongers settling in the United States to pursue their American dreams. By some estimates, more than ten percent of all Chinese immigrants currently in the United States are from Hong Kong. These immigrants enrich communities across the United States.

Many countries around the world, including the United States, are deeply concerned about developments in Hong Kong. UN independent experts and special rapporteurs on human rights have echoed these concerns. The PRC, however, routinely characterizes any views it does not like as “foreign interference.”

Given the Joint Declaration’s status as an international agreement, along with the depth of international business interests in Hong Kong and the large number of foreign residents who call the city home, international scrutiny of the PRC’s actions in Hong Kong is appropriate and necessary.

Our interests in Hong Kong are clear and longstanding, and we will continue to advocate on behalf of people in Hong Kong, including through our engagement with the full spectrum of Hong Kong society and foreign allies and partners on the ground. It is deeply unfortunate that a city that prospered for so many years from international engagement and made a name for itself as a global hub – to the point of being known as “Asia’s World City” – is now being severely damaged by Beijing in the name of preventing “foreign interference.”

In Hong Kong and around the world, Beijing has sought to silence any criticism of its policies, no matter the location or the speaker. Not long ago, Hong Kongers were free to speak their mind. Now criticism of Beijing can be considered sedition and dissenting views can be punishable as “anti-patriotic.”

Not only have individuals and the media been silenced, but Beijing has also tried to prevent diplomats from expressing the views of their governments. Such actions are inconsistent with the PRC’s obligations under the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. Routine diplomatic activities are characterized as “interference” and diplomats have even been threatened with the National Security Law for conducting ordinary business. Strong nations are not terrified of dissenting opinions. An exchange of views is not collusion. Attending an event is not interference. A handshake is not “a black hand.” Hong Kong has succeeded when it embraces openness and transparency, not ideological paranoia and groupthink.

IV. Undermining rights and freedoms hurts the business climate

Remember that Hong Kong emerged as one of the world’s richest and most developed cities precisely because of its adherence to principles and practices that are now under threat: transparency, pluralism, and respect for the rule of law.

As we see in the United States, an open society, at its best, attracts flows of talent and investment and has a time-tested capacity for reinvention, rooted in our democracy, empowering us to meet whatever challenges we face. These are conditions that Hong Kong used to share. Hong Kong is a key regional and global base for American business, and we have an important stake in the city’s continued viability as an international business and financial hub. Nearly 1,300 U.S. companies operate in Hong Kong and U.S. businesses account for the largest number of regional headquarters among multinational companies in the city.

In 2021, goods imported from Hong Kong to the U.S. totaled 4.1 billion U.S. Dollars and the U.S. goods trade surplus with Hong Kong was US$25.9 billion.

Americans account for about fourteen percent of all non-Hong Kong entrepreneurs in Hong Kong, trailing only behind entrepreneurs from Mainland China. The factors which attracted so much U.S. capital and talent to Hong Kong are now under question. No other major global business center has witnessed such a significant erosion in the political environment in such a short period of time. Companies face increased risks doing business in Hong Kong as a direct result of the National Security Law, as well as new threats to data privacy, transparency, and access to critical business information.

For these reasons, the Biden administration last year issued an advisory for U.S. businesses already operating or considering operating in Hong Kong.

This facts-based assessment of Hong Kong’s evolving business environment equips businesses with the information they need to make clear-eyed choices about the potential risks to personnel, operations, and their financial interests that have developed in recent years. In his recent speech, Secretary Blinken clearly said, “we believe – and we expect the business community to understand – that the price of admission to China’s market must not be the sacrifice of our core values or long-term competitive and technological advantages. We’re counting on businesses to pursue growth responsibly, assess risk soberly, and work with us not only to protect but to strengthen our national security.”

Businesses require the rule of law and an independent judiciary, the free flow of information, and data security.

You can’t have à la carte rule of law which applies in some instances but not others. Attempting to maintain Hong Kong’s unique economic and financial systems while degrading its political institutions is not a viable strategy. By constraining political and social freedoms, the PRC will inevitably compromise the attributes that have allowed Hong Kong to develop as a global services hub. Beijing can’t have it both ways.

V. False assertions about the National Security Law

The National Security Law (NSL) imposed on Hong Kong by Beijing in June 2020 has significantly undermined the city’s autonomy.

Its imposition is the most obvious sign of the PRC’s fundamental self-doubt. A responsive, representative government does not use fear, deliberate ambiguity, and autocratic judicial processes to rule its people.

A senior PRC government official claimed at the time that the law would focus on “a tiny number of criminals who seriously endanger national security.”

The law fosters an atmosphere of fear and coercion through a vague definition of “national security” that has thus far led Hong Kong authorities to arrest or detain over 100 activists, opposition figures, and ordinary people. The application of this law has been broad, crude, and chilling.

Hong Kongers have faced criminal penalties merely for peaceful assembly, attempting to arrange a political primary, posting personal opinions on Facebook, hanging a poster outside an apartment, and even writing children’s books.

The PRC argues that the United States and other foreign countries have their own national security legislation. This argument fundamentally misses the point: the issue is not whether it is appropriate to have a national security law, but the process, content, and context for establishing, implementing, and enforcing such a law.

The implementation of the NSL has seen Hong Kongers subjected to violations of minimum fair trial guarantees and deviations from established judicial practices. Rather than Hong Kong’s own institutions developing a law consistent with the city’s high degree of autonomy – an approach pursued as recently as 2003– the 2020 National Security Law was thrust onto the city by Beijing.

True patriotism is earned by winning the allegiance of free people, rather than futile efforts to legislate “patriotism” and loyalty from above.

VI. Hong Kong’s political overhaul

As damaging as the National Security Law has been for the rule of law, Beijing’s wholesale abandonment of democratic processes in its overhaul of Hong Kong’s electoral system is of just as much concern for the future of Hong Kong governance.

In November 2019, the residents of Hong Kong rendered a clear verdict. Nearly three million Hong Kongers came out to vote – over 70 percent of registered voters – and delivered 388 out of 452 elected seats to pro-democracy candidates, showing loudly and clearly once again that the concerns that brought millions onto the streets of Hong Kong are shared by the majority of the city’s population. Yet the PRC once again refused to listen. Since that date, Beijing has not allowed another broadly free and fair election to take place, because it knows that Hong Kong residents support neither the NSL, nor the ongoing crackdown on all forms of dissent and free expression.

Rather than address the concerns of Hong Kongers, the PRC constrains Hong Kong’s once representative institutions from reflecting the will of people in Hong Kong. This approach fundamentally contradicts the spirit and practice of One Country, Two Systems, and undermines the responsive governance that has been the basis for the city’s past development and success.

The PRC stacked the Chief Executive Election Committee with pro-Beijing loyalists. And even then, Beijing only endorsed one candidate, leading to a sham election made all the more obvious as it was uncontested. As we noted with our G7 partners, we have grave concern over these changes to Hong Kong’s political rules. They increase the number of non-elected members appointed to the Election Committee, dramatically curtail the number of voters eligible to participate in the selection process and move away from the ultimate aim of universal suffrage as set out in Hong Kong’s Basic Law.

The PRC has also slashed the number of directly elected Legislative Council seats, packing the body with appointed members and refusing to allow Hong Kongers a direct vote on more than three quarters of the legislature. The central government’s disqualification of democratically elected District Councilors was a brazen attempt to ignore election results on vaguely defined grounds of “patriotism” and “loyalty.” Under these circumstances, the Legislative Council elections that took place on December 19, 2021, with record low turnout, were not representative of the will of people in Hong Kong.

Lawmakers’ constituents will not be Hong Kong residents but Beijing officials, a model that seriously limits good governance and accountability. Rather than trying to silence dissenting voices, the Hong Kong government should let the city’s democratic institutions do what they were designed to do – offer an outlet for peaceful engagement and debate.

Those are the terms of the Joint Declaration, the Basic Law, and the One Country, Two Systems framework; notably, they also constitute the formula that helped Hong Kong thrive as a prosperous global hub and beacon of development.

VII. Conclusion

There is a sharp and growing divide between Beijing’s promises and its actions.

We believe that the PRC sincerely intended to follow through on the pledge it made in 1997, when Jiang Zemin said, “After the return of Hong Kong, the Chinese Government will unswervingly implement the basic policies of ‘one country, two systems,’ ‘Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong’ and ‘a high degree of autonomy’ and keep Hong Kong’s previous socio-economic system and way of life of Hong Kong unchanged and its previous laws basically unchanged.”

It seems increasingly clear that Beijing has decided not to keep its promises. It appears it no longer wishes to honor its obligations in the Joint Declaration, and no longer supports “One Country, Two Systems.”

As Secretary Blinken recently said, “we’ll continue to raise these issues and call for change – not to stand against China, but to stand up for peace, security, and human dignity.”

Yet, a genuinely stable and prosperous Hong Kong remains within reach.

We urge Beijing to foster true stability by restoring to the residents of Hong Kong the basic rights and freedoms they were promised.

We urge Beijing to withdraw the overt and subtle pressures that have pushed Hong Kongers to flee overseas, to self-censor, and to withdraw from civic life. We urge Beijing to allow its people to exercise the rights that enabled Hong Kong to flourish for decades.

The United States will continue to stand with people in Hong Kong in support of the high degree of autonomy promised in the Joint Declaration and the original vision of “One Country, Two Systems” that served the city well for years.

Let us build on our common desire for an open, stable, and prosperous Hong Kong.

Thank you.