Interview with Kurt Tong on Straight Talk with Michael Chugani
January 8, 2018
QUESTION: Hello, I’m Michael Chugani, and this is Straight Talk. With me today is the US Consul General, Mr Kurt Tong. Thank you very much for being here.
CG TONG: Thank you Michael, it’s a pleasure.
QUESTION: Now, Mr Consul General, you’ve brought some very interesting cups over here, what does that say?
CG TONG: I thought you needed to have these for your morning coffee. This is “America Loves Hong Kong.”
QUESTION: That’s a nice thing to say.
CG TONG: I thought you could use these.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for that. Now, something that people always wonder. Your name is Kurt Tong, and they say that’s a Chinese name. It’s not like Ronny Tong, like that “Tong,” right?
CG TONG: Ronny is probably a very, very distant relative, but my last name Tong, obviously, comes from my father, his father and father before that. And my great grandfather, Henry Tong, immigrated to the United States from England. And the name, actually, is the old Saxon spelling of the word tongue.
QUESTION: I see, there’s nothing to do with Chinese.
CG TONG: It had nothing to do with Chinese, but it’s been very interesting throughout my career explaining to people why they’re disappointed to meet a Tong that looks like this instead of like Ronny.
QUESTION: Okay, no relations. Okay, now, we got to move on to more serious stuff. Now, before we move on to local issues, I just want to ask you one question. This book that come out, Fire and Fury, that is an amazing book. It’s created quite a storm in the US and all over the world that says essentially that, President Donald Trump is not suitable to be president. As the US Consul General representing the United States in Hong Kong, how do you deal with something like that?
CG TONG: Well, I think that book and lots of other books like it are really just evidence of how lively the American political dialogue is. In the United States, we have freedom of expression and democracy, and it works, and part of that is having lots of, the ability for people to publish whatever they want. So, I actually see things like this as an opportunity to help explain part of our core message to people in Hong Kong about how the importance of freedom of expression and the importance of democratic values in any society.
QUESTION: Dare I ask you whether President Trump is suitable to be president?
CG TONG: Of course he is. He’s the president and I respect him and work for him.
QUESTION: Okay, now, you mentioned freedom of speech. I read a speech that you made some time back. You mentioned free speech, you mentioned democracy, you mentioned quite a number of things, the rule of law, in that speech. After reading that speech, I read it a couple of times, after reading that speech, it gave me the impression that you fear Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy is being eroded. Is it?
Well, I think that, to date, Hong Kong has been a raging success from the perspective of the United States. It was under British rule and has become even more so as part of China. That success, from the US perspective, comes from a high degree of autonomy. For foreigners, for foreign governments and foreign business people and private citizens, the attractiveness of Hong Kong comes from the fact that it has rule of law, freedom of expression, a strong judiciary. And that is something that needs to be maintained. So I certainly feel no sense of panic about the situation in Hong Kong, but it’s important to Hong Kong’s future, and also to the interests of my country and of China that that high degree of autonomy be maintained.
QUESTION: But the question was: is it being maintained? Is it slowly disappearing?
CG TONG: Well, I think our assessment, looking at it from the United States …
QUESTION: But your speech did suggest that it is slowly disappearing?
CG TONG: Well, I think there are things to worry about.
QUESTION: Like what?
CG TONG: Well, some of the statements that come out of central government with an emphasis on comprehensive jurisdiction, for example, versus … instead of emphasizing the high degree of autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys, are a bit worrisome. I think it’s important when discussing Hong Kong governance to put proper reference on both the rights and privileges that Hong Kong enjoys as well as the requirements of being part of China. There seems to be a lot of emphasis these days, on statements coming out of Beijing, on those responsibilities and less emphasis on the rights and privileges as enshrined in the Basic Law, and I think this is very important to emphasize those.
QUESTION: Yes. In fact, one of the points that you made and I’ll point this out to you, is that you say the best way to read the Basic Law is to see that it gives wide autonomy to Hong Kong, right? But now you’ve got statements coming out from Beijing that talks about comprehensive jurisdiction, and that, apparently, is taking the opposite perspective, which is that rather than Hong Kong having a high degree of autonomy, those statements suggest that autonomy should be parceled out. Is that what worries you?
CG TONG: Yes. In a nutshell, I think you’ve captured it, that instead of the default being autonomy, there may be some people in Beijing who think that the default is being part of China, and then maybe there should be some autonomy. So, I think it’s a question of degree and, certainly, there are grey areas. But, from our perspective, again, from the US perspective, we love Hong Kong because it is unique and different, and what makes it unique and different is the “two systems” part that’s enshrined in the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. That doesn’t, Michael, it doesn’t mean that the United States questions that Hong Kong is part of China or will remain part of China. In fact, Hong Kong is exciting because it’s part of China, that it’s a particularly interesting place to do business and for countries like the United States to have a deep relationship with because it is autonomous and has the ability to be different from …
QUESTION: But if you say this is a good place to do business because it has autonomy, but you say that now the tone seems to be that autonomy is controlled by the central government and that autonomy is decided by the central government as to how far it goes, if that is the case, does that affect business confidence in Hong Kong, especially American business confidence?
CG TONG: Well, to date I think that the level of confidence that foreign business, American business has in Hong Kong is very high. We would like it to remain that way. There are 1,400-odd US companies in Hong Kong. We’re the biggest foreign investor, our companies in Hong Kong. We have the most regional branches based in Hong Kong. And all of that comes from the fact that if you sign contracts in Hong Kong, it’s under solid common law as interpreted by a well-trained and impartial judiciary. That is fantastic, it’s great for everybody. And so, we just hope that it stays that way.
QUESTION: Okay, now, before we move on, let me show you a clip. Now, this is something that Peter Wong, a member of the National People’s Congress, said on this show a couple of weeks ago. Let’s see what he said.
In the past three years, we have gone through all this, there’s Occupy Central, the Americans’ involvement. And now it comes up with this Hong Kong independence movement. And it has been shown all these youngsters, they’ve gone through trainings in UK, in Norway, in America.
Now, he made that statement here a couple of weeks back. He said quite clearly, blatantly, that the United States was partly behind Occupy Central, and the people who advocate independence received training in the United States. I read your speech and you talked about free speech. And you said free speech should … it means exactly what it says, free speech, and that should allow you to talk about independence. Not that you agree with it, but that it should allow you to discuss independence in Hong Kong. Now, that’s a very sensitive issue. And you’ve got Peter Wong here saying that the people who advocate independence got training in the United States, and you say they should be allowed to talk about independence. Doesn’t that fuel that belief?
CG TONG: Well, I think it’s important to be precise. So, Peter has the right under the Basic Law to make an inaccurate accusation, and he’s just wrong. Now, as I stated, the United States sees Hong Kong … that Hong Kong is part of China, will remain part of China. We have no problem with that. Hong Kong is part of China. Should people be allowed to express themselves, including through their right for peaceful assembly? From our point of view, yes they should be allowed to express themselves.
QUESTION: Even to talk about independence, and to advocate independence?
CG TONG: Sure. Why not? In the United States, people advocate independence or secession all the time. That’s different from the limitations on freedom of expression, if you look at US law. You know, I happen to think that US law is a good set of laws. People have freedom of expression unless and until it actually damages another person. So, there are rules in the United States about libel, there are rules in the United States about hate speech, but expressing your opinion about political matters, we don’t have any limitations on that, and …
QUESTION: You’re not worried that when you say that people should be able to advocate independence in Hong Kong peacefully, you’re not worried that that would upset Beijing?
CG TONG: That’s not my most important set of concerns. I think the real issue is what is good for Hong Kong, and it’s a set piece – high degree of autonomy reinforces freedoms, including freedom of expression, freedom of assembly; that reinforces rule of law; it reinforces justice and transparency and governance. And as I said in that speech, thank you for plugging it for me and people are welcome to go onto our website and read it.
QUESTION: I’ll plug it right after the break. See you soon, don’t go away.
QUESTION: Thanks for sticking around. This is Straight Talk. With me is the US Consul General, Mr Kurt Tong. Now, Mr Tong, before the break you said that it is not your primary concern that the central government might be upset if you say Hong Kong people, because they have the freedom of speech, should be allowed to talk about independence and advocate independence peacefully. It’s not your concern whether they get upset or not.
CG TONG: I don’t get my instructions from Beijing. I get my instructions from Washington, and those instructions reflect the American point of view, the point of view of the American people about Hong Kong, which, as I’ve stated already, is that a high degree of autonomy, the rights and privileges as enshrined in the Basic Law, are what makes Hong Kong attractive to the United States as a partner. I also, when I speak with people from the Central People’s Government, explain to them that perspective, and also the point of view from the US that, actually, a Hong Kong which is different, and a Hong Kong whose differences are tolerated by Beijing, is actually a Hong Kong which is more helpful to China’s overall development, both economically and socially, and that tolerance of the diversity as represented by Hong Kong is something that’s good for China. It’s good for it financially, economically, but also in terms of, in the context of US-China relations or China’s overall external relations. Not to carry on, but think about the fact that 60% of outward investment from China goes through Hong Kong. There’s a good reason for that – because Hong Kong has common law and a strong judiciary.
And people believe in the place.
QUESTION: Okay, now, once and for all, let’s clear this up. Ever since 2014, ever since the Occupy movement, there have been accusations, claims that the United States somehow, either directly or indirectly through organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy or whatever, had somehow financed, instigated the Occupy protests. Here and now, clear up this issue. Was the United States involved in any way, directly or indirectly?
CG TONG: Not at all. Those accusations as described by you are completely false.
QUESTION: But then people say that the NED did finance the democracy movement in Hong Kong. And that indirectly instigated Occupy.
CG TONG: The National Endowment for Democracy, which is a quasi-independent entity, funds lots of activities around the world and in the United States in promotion of democratic values in a very general sense. And it’s true that many students from Hong Kong study in the United States, or in the UK or in Australia.
QUESTION: And they’re not taught to promote independence, like Peter Wong said?
CG TONG: They may be influenced by that educational experience as are students from the mainland. We have, you know, hundreds of thousands of mainland students in the United States as well. That’s natural. That’s not the same thing as a foreign power interfering in Hong Kong affairs.
QUESTION: So there’s no direct interference at all?
CG TONG: Not at all.
QUESTION: All right. Okay, now, you mentioned…
CG TONG: I hope I got that cleared up.
QUESTION: Well, I don’t think a lot of people will buy it but at least you said it and it’s on the record there. Now, the other thing you said – and I’m plugging your speech again, okay – you said we need to have more democracy. The more democracy, the better it is for Hong Kong. We need greater democracy in Hong Kong. I think most people would agree with that, that we do need to have more democracy. In fact, that’s consumed our politics for many years. But tell me, define in your own terms, how you see greater democracy. What does that mean because when the central government offered a democratic proposal in 2014, it was described as fake democracy by the so-called opposition camp in the Legislative Council, whereas the central government says that is genuine democracy and it fits in with the Basic Law. In your opinion, what is greater democracy?
CG TONG: I think that a democratic society is one where people feel that they have an ability to express their opinion about matters of governance, and when those opinions are appropriate and supported by a lot of people, that those opinions are expressed in the governance that they receive. It’s a basic social contract that exists in a democratic society.
QUESTION: You don’t see the 2014 proposal by the central government as … does it fit what you’ve just described?
CG TONG: I don’t have a specific opinion to give you about any specific piece of governance legislation with respect to Hong Kong because that would be, frankly, foreign interference.
QUESTION: Well, let me put it in another way, do you think the opposition camp is right, or has grounds when it says that what was offered was fake democracy?
CG TONG: The US has regularly said that universal suffrage, as described in the Basic Law, would be a good thing for Hong Kong. The particulars of it and the details of it, I think, are something for the Hong Kong legislative process to work out.
QUESTION: Would you accept the one that was offered in 2014 as genuine democracy?
CG TONG: I’m not going to, that’s three times, Michael, I’m not going to give you a yes-or-no answer on that.
QUESTION: Okay, the other thing you mentioned, which, I think, really was interesting to me. You talked about digital Leninism, and I know for a fact that whenever I go to mainland China, the internet is not totally available and is very much controlled. And you said that that is going to be a new test for “One Country, Two Systems.” How so?
CG TONG: Well, I think that Hong Kong’s economic system and system of governance benefits from and is instinctively drawn towards an online economy and online society which is unfettered. China is taking an approach towards the internet and governance of the internet which is much more state-centric, much more focused on control of it, control of information.
QUESTION: Well, a lot of it is controlled. You cannot do a lot of things.
CG TONG: Correct. Correct. And so, currently, the online environment in Hong Kong is relatively unfettered. That, from our perspective, is a good thing.
QUESTION: Are you worried that the Chinese system is going to somehow migrate into Hong Kong, when you said it’s the next big test for “One Country, Two Systems?”
CG TONG: I think it’s important to maintain an internet which is governed according to what’s called the multi-stakeholder approach. You probably know this, but there’s a set of norms around how the internet is managed worldwide, and, frankly, China is the challenge to those norms. And that system of internet, online governance is something that should be maintained.
QUESTION: Why do you fear that it may affect Hong Kong?
CG TONG: Well, because Hong Kong is part of China.
QUESTION: So you think that could happen here?
CG TONG: But Hong Kong is governed by the Basic Law, and there are many provisions in the Basic Law which support the current form of internet.
QUESTION: I running out of time, but I want to, very quickly, ask you, the other thing you said was it’s not a correct comparison between American sports people who don’t stand up for the national anthem, comparing it to a proposal in Hong Kong that you must stand up. So, you don’t think you have to stand up for the national anthem in Hong Kong?
CG TONG: In the United States, we do not have any particular form of behaviour during the playing of the national anthem. I, personally, regularly stand up, and I don’t sing very well so I don’t sing along.
QUESTION: But do you think it should be legalized in Hong Kong that you should stand up?
CG TONG: Again, the United States, we don’t feel like the national anthem requires any specific form of behaviour. If I could, Michael, last thing I wanted to point out is beginning of 2018 the United States Consulate has been operating now and 2018 is our 175th anniversary. So we’re going to be … I really appreciate you having me on the show to talk a little bit about US values and our approach to Hong Kong. We’re on a bit of a campaign to try to reinforce how much the United States loves Hong Kong and why. And 175 years is a long time, so I often look at the history of Hong Kong and the history of United States’ relationship with Hong Kong from this kind of long-term perspective, and I hope that your viewership will as well.
QUESTION: Well, I’ve got a minute left – less than a minute, I’m going to ask you this, you want to show how much the United States loves Hong Kong. But everybody’s talking about a trade war between the US and China. Is that going to happen?
CG TONG: I think that there’s going to be some – what’s the right word – focused conversations between the United States and China.
QUESTION: Friction? Is that a better word?
CG TONG: Friction is another way to describe it. The United States has a number of concerns about the current shape of the US-China economic relationship, and, foremost among that, is that lack of reciprocity in terms of market access.
QUESTION: Is it going to become a trade war?
CG TONG: I don’t like the word trade war because that implies that people would do things that are self-destructive, or destructive to the relationship.
QUESTION: Will that worsen? Last question, will that worsen?
CG TONG: I think there is going to be some pitched conversations. But you saw that President Trump and President Xi have developed a strong personal relationship. United States and China have a friendly and constructive relationship overall. I think that relationship is strong enough to bear some frank conversations about problems on the economic side.
QUESTION: I’m going to have to end it right there.
Thanks for watching, see you next time, good evening.