Independence Day Reception Remarks in Hong Kong

Remarks by Consul General Clifford A. Hart, Jr.
Independence Day Reception
JW Marriott Hotel, Hong Kong
June 30, 2015

(As Prepared For Delivery)

Secretary Yuen, friends and colleagues, ladies and gentlemen, good evening!

Our reception tonight celebrates the two hundred and thirty-ninth year of American independence. Thank you for joining us on this happy occasion. While we gather to celebrate it, I think it’s also appropriate to pause to reflect on other anniversaries that are significant for all of us who call the Asia-Pacific home. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War, a fateful struggle that claimed nearly as many American lives as all of the other wars in which we have fought. The consequences were global: only because the Union prevailed was American power there to confront the Twentieth Century’s tyrannies, was there a continental American economy to power international prosperity, and was our moral voice so strong and persuasive.

We also mark seven decades since the defeat of militarism at the end of the Second World War. Let’s take ourselves to 70 years right now, on June 30, 1945: a deep shadow still lay across Hong Kong. Nobody could have known that liberation was merely two months away. My father’s father, a U.S. Navy officer and a slave laborer in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, had no way to know he was just weeks from freedom. Most observers assumed that the war would last another couple of years and cost millions more lives. We are fortunate, this long after the war, that we still share the world with people who lived through those dark times.

I am deeply honored this evening to welcome a long-term Hong Kong resident who survived one of the darkest periods in human history, the Nazi extermination camps of World War II. Mr. Sylvain Gilbert, thank you so much for being with us this evening.

The end of World War II showcased the resilience of the Asian peoples and the importance of America’s commitment to the region. Had the United States shirked its responsibilities after V-J Day, it is difficult to imagine that Asia as a whole — or the Mainland or Hong Kong in particular — would have reached today’s peace and prosperity. Our rebalance in the Asia-Pacific today is merely the latest reaffirmation of the United States’ commitment to a vast region that is home and that it therefore cannot leave. 2015 is also the 60th anniversary of an event that I find especially gratifying.

I recently heard a story that was absolutely new to me, but which I received on good authority. On December 25, 1941, as British forces prepared to surrender, the commander of the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Corps ordered a young officer to take the unit’s colors — its flag — to an unknown location and bury them, to prevent capture. Having executed his orders, the young officer was killed in action that day before telling anybody where he had buried them. The location of the colors was therefore lost and deemed unresolvable at war’s end and in the years thereafter. In 1955, however, six decades ago, a construction crew excavating the foundations of a new building in Central uncovered the colors. The colors were returned to the Volunteers and hung in honor for years in St. John’s Cathedral. That building was the new U.S. Consulate General. As the U.S. Consul General, I am delighted to mark this postscript to history in which the very American presence in Hong Kong helped to heal a small wound that war had left behind.

And now let me note a final anniversary — the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act twenty-five years ago. The ADA prohibits discrimination against the disabled in employment, transportation, and other areas. This is a happy anniversary, a watershed in assuring that all people enjoy the same rights and opportunities. I am proud that my country was the first to pass such comprehensive legislation: fair treatment of our most vulnerable citizens is a fundamental test for all countries that aspire to be regarded as civilized and humane. This is not a time for triumphalism, however: as we face the work that remains, we have every reason to remain humble.

Our great hope must be that the next 70 years will witness at least as much progress as the last. The prospects are good: no other part of the world has seen a comparable transformation in recent decades, and the Asia-Pacific has never in modern times been more important to the world. Critically, China has reemerged as a leading member of the international community. This is a great moment in human history. Much rides on China’s decisions.

As we look out over the next 70 years, the United States will remain, as ever, ready to partner with Beijing to promote mutual prosperity and peace and to applaud as China embraces the international obligations that go with power and wealth. And where will Hong Kong be in 70 years? Still here, still dynamic, still playing a disproportionate role in the international system. I would not want to predict specifics, other than to say that I have every expectation that the American and Hong Kong people will retain a special partnership and that tens of thousands of Americans will happily still call it home.

Hong Kong’s 18th celebration of Establishment Day tomorrow comes less than two weeks after the Legislative Council made its decision on the Government’s universal suffrage package. The preceding debate revealed sharply divergent perspectives, and, following LegCo’s decision, politics in Hong Kong are, frankly, a little raw.

In this context, I note that, last week in America, the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court delivered historic decisions on issues that had long divided Americans. These decisions are a reminder to observers at home and abroad not to mistake debate — even prolonged, heated, and halting debate — necessarily as signs of dysfunctionality or failure. In fact, on important issues, public debate is the indispensable means by which open societies work toward agreement on their greatest challenges.

We encourage the Hong Kong authorities, the national government, and the Hong Kong people to continue to work together towards the goal of achieving universal suffrage in accordance with the Basic Law and the aspirations of the Hong Kong people. For now, as Hong Kong takes its breath, as a friend, I would merely urge local friends of all perspectives to fall back on their hallmark civility, forbearance, and patience in dealing with one another as they address the myriad challenges of governance before them.

And, at last, some special thanks. First, thank you, Secretary Yuen, for honoring us with your presence. Your broad responsibilities encompass a cornerstone of the United States’ close partnership with Hong Kong — our enduring cooperation in law enforcement, including the fight against narcotics trafficking, money laundering, and modern-day slavery.

Next, let me thank the Seventh Fleet Band for being here this evening to entertain us with music from the Great American Songbook. Last, I would like to thank my exceptional team at the U.S. Consulate General for mounting not just one but two outstanding celebrations of American Independence — this evening and last Friday in Macau. Finally, I’d like to thank the many sponsors — both within the American business community and without — whose generous support made this evening possible.

During this year of great anniversaries and great hope, please join me in raising a toast to the friendship among the people of Hong Kong, the rest of the People’s Republic of China, and the United States of America!

[Toast]