U.S. Consul General Gregory May Keynote Remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
January 25, 2023
(As prepared for delivery)
Thank you to for inviting me and thanks to CSIS and Jude Blanchette for organizing this important event today. I am especially pleased to appear alongside my predecessor, Hanscom Smith, who led the U.S. Consulate during an especially challenging time during the 2019-to-2020 protests and the COVID pandemic.
I want to focus my remarks today on my initial impressions of Hong Kong after spending just over four months here. My presentation today is not meant to be a comprehensive overview of U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.
One of my strongest impressions since my arrival was the sheer exhaustion of Hong Kongers with COVID-related controls that had cut off this city from the rest of the world for nearly three years and stayed in place longer than anywhere with the exception of mainland China.
Nearly everyone has stories about extended stays in quarantine – many went through 21 days in a hotel – or experienced serious anxiety about testing and lockdowns. Hong Kong’s “long COVID” clearly impacted this city and its people – and we see it in the data: we estimate 15,000 American residents moved out or Hong Kong over the last two years.
When I got off the plane in September, my wife and I had to undergo three days of quarantine and more than a week of regular COVID tests. Hong Kong’s once bustling Chek Lap Kok airport seemed deserted. Everybody I spoke with in those first weeks expressed anxiety about the economic damage these COVID restrictions were doing to Hong Kong and many expressed concern that some of this damage would be permanent.
These barriers have come down quickly and, with the border to mainland China opening up and quarantine requirements lifted, there is renewed optimism here that Hong Kong’s economy will return to growth after suffering a contraction in GDP last year.
The reopening of Hong Kong is good news for the people-to-people relationship, which is one of my highest priorities as Consul General. Hong Kongers and Americans are eager to reestablish travel, cultural, and academic ties that have been in suspended animation during the pandemic.
Revitalizing academic exchange is especially important. We want more Hongkongers going to the United States to study and Americans coming here. I have heard troubling statistics about the very very low numbers of Americans studying on the mainland. It is in the interest of both the United States and China to build the next generation of scholars, business leaders, and government officials with experience in Chinese cultures. Hong Kong can and should play a key role in that by having students and academics go in both directions.
Despite worrying signs of declining academic freedom here – including the sidelining or dismissal of professors, introduction of “patriotic education” classes, and the dissolution of student unions – Hong Kong academics still enjoy much greater latitude to engage with their American counterparts than scholars in mainland China, which is admittedly a low bar. Hong Kong universities remain some of the best in the region and Hong Kong students some of the best prepared.
At a time when Beijing’s ever more repressive ideological controls make it hard for American scholars to maintain their contacts in mainland China, Hong Kong academics and analysts continue to enjoy greater access to institutions and contacts across the PRC. This means Hong Kong’s importance is once again rising as a platform to help the international community understand mainland China’s politics and economy. This year, the U.S. Consulate will initiate some programs to encourage renewed exchanges between American and Hong Kong universities and think tanks on these topics.
Another strong impression I have had is the changing nature of Hong Kong’s media. I knew before arriving that the closure of outlets such as the Apple Daily and Stand News meant Hong Kong’s press is no longer as vibrant as before, but it has still been jarring to see papers, especially Chinese language ones, so eager to toe Beijing’s line and engage in self-censorship. In October, when someone hung protest banners on a bridge in Beijing critical of PRC President Xi Jinping, this event, which was so widely covered by the international press, went largely unreported by Hong Kong media outlets.
International media outlets maintain robust presences in Hong Kong, but the atmosphere has clearly changed from the past. Unfortunately, Hong Kong authorities have contributed to the diminishing press freedom by banning foreign journalists. Most recently, immigration officers on December 30 denied entry to Japanese freelance photographer Michiko Kiseki who had chronicled the 2019 pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong.
The internet is now very much a “canary in the coal mine” for free expression. Hong Kong’s leaders are aggressively promoting the city as a tech and innovation hub and appear committed to avoiding the kind of heavy-handed internet censorship seen on the mainland. However, Hong Kong officials have also been publicly demanding a leading search engine change search results to downgrade content related to the 2019 protests – this is not the way to encourage new tech investment.
In addition, Hong Kong’s government has expressed an intent to pass a law to combat “fake news.” While proponents of such legislation cite the need to combat disinformation that damages public safety, given Hong Kong authorities’ recent track record of jailing individual internet users for online posts, the public is right to be concerned about further degradation of freedom to speak one’s mind.
A third impression I have is the strong desire among Hong Kongers to persevere in a difficult situation and preserve Hong Kong’s freedoms and legal norms to the greatest extent possible given the reality of the National Security Law and Beijing’s ultimate control over Hong Kong’s path. Hongkongers are rightly proud of their city and their society built on a long tradition of rule of law.
Many Hong Kongers – and this includes people from across the political spectrum – do not support the harsh treatment of Apple Daily Founder Jimmy Lai and other defendants facing trials under the National Security Law. They understand how the jailing of people for peaceful political expression undermines the rule of law and Hong Kong’s long-term viability and attractiveness as an international hub.
One point of unanimity among the people I have met – and this includes members of the Democrats as well as the strongly pro-Beijing camp–is a desire for the international community, including the United States, to recognize Hong Kong’s unique culture and society and continue to treat Hong Kong as distinct from mainland China.
Hong Kong does remain different in many important ways, including in the economic sphere. Hong Kong continues to rank high on ease-of-doing-business rankings, maintains low trade barriers and strong intellectual property protections. Although cognizant of new risks created by Beijing’s undermining of autonomy, many United States companies want to stay in Hong Kong because they are doing well.
Hong Kong alone is the 7th largest export market for U.S. consumer ready food products. Last year, despite the challenges of the pandemic, the U.S. exported $30 billion dollars in goods and $14 billion in services, with healthy surpluses in both categories. Despite the many tensions in the broader U.S.-China relationship, we have not witnessed discriminatory treatment of American products or firms in Hong Kong.
While there is no shortage of frustration over recent events, many Hong Kongers still have hope for their city and want it to succeed. I have heard loud and clear from Hong Kong people from all sides a desire for strong U.S. engagement, and the United States will continue to be a close partner for the Hong Kong people.
The United States is committed to maintaining its unique relationship with Hong Kong that recognizes this territory’s special status, culture, and history. We will keep lines of communication open with all Hong Kongers, including those overseas.
And as friends who are deeply invested in this city, we will continue to make it known when we disagree with Beijing and the Hong Kong government’s actions to undermine the autonomy. At the same time, we will maintain where possible our cooperation with Hong Kong authorities on trade and investment, climate change, health, transnational crime, narcotics, people-to-people ties, and other issues that benefit both Hong Kongers and Americans.
The United States has been part of the story of Hong Kong since the beginning, and our consulate has been here since 1843. Our diplomatic presence has grown steadily ever since and is arguably more important than ever.
And we don’t have any plans to give up on Hong Kong, or on Hongkongers.