Consul General Tong’s Interview on RTHK “The Pulse,” Hosted by Steve Vines

Broadcast on May 4, 2019

Stephen Vines (SV): Consul General, can I ask you? It does appear that the United States is getting a bit more engaged with affairs in Hong Kong: you’re being critical of the sentencing of the Occupy leaders, you’ve raised concerns over the extradition … the proposed extradition law, and the latest report on Hong Kong is really quite critical about the diminution of autonomy.

CG Tong: Well, I think we’ve always been very careful and also very concentrated in thinking about Hong Kong, and there’s a good reason for that. Hong Kong is, in the construct of the United States’ relations with Asia-Pacific, generally and particularly with China, a very valuable platform for American business. Also for the American government, and for the American academic community, journalism, etc.

And so we actually care quite a bit about Hong Kong’s present and future, because it shapes our ability to participate in the region constructively.

We also believe that it’s a very important part of China, and really adds a lot to China’s capabilities to communicate with the outside world. So we focus a lot on Hong Kong.

SV: But would it be true to say that there’s a been a policy shift in being more assertive in criticism of things that have been going on in Hong Kong?

CG Tong: Well, if that’s your perception, I think it would be because things have changed a bit in Hong Kong. You cited some examples in our Hong Kong Policy Act Report that we are required to put out each year. We did identify a number of concerning events and trends last year and in previous years, and we stated that we’ve seen an accelerating tempo of actions either by the Central Government, or by the Hong Kong Government as a proxy, which seemed to undermine the high degree of autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that everyone values.

SV: So where does this leave the perception of Hong Kong in Washington? Is there now a feeling that Hong Kong isn’t the place that it was at the time of, say, the Handover 20 years ago?

CG Tong: Well, I think the dominant perception right now, to be frank, is one of concern. I don’t think there’s a sense of panic that Hong Kong is no longer a good place to do business, or that it’s changed fundamentally yet. But I do think there’s concern.

And so we’ll just continue to pay attention and also to promote the concept that, really, Hong Kong’s value-added proposition, both in terms of its economic competitiveness and its attractiveness as a society, stem from this high degree of autonomy and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.

SV: And is that concern in any way being translated in the attitude of the American business community?

CG Tong: I think that the best way to describe it is that the recent situation in Hong Kong has given the business community a bit of a pause in terms of thinking about Hong Kong.

And really, Hong Kong is a question of confidence. If people have confidence in the high degree of autonomy, and the “One country, Two Systems” framework, then I think confidence will build more confidence, and that creates more investment and growth, and positive activity in all spheres, not just the economy. And when confidence is undermined, then that can slow down people’s commitment to the city.

So we’re very careful to try not to be a factor that precipitates any loss of confidence in Hong Kong, but we do feel it’s our responsibility to reflect the perceptions of the international community in our discussions here.

SV: And when you speak to the leadership of the Hong Kong SAR Government, do you sense they take on board the concerns that we’ve just been talking about?

CG Tong: I do. I do think they listen and they’re concerned, and they value the international community’s investment here and stake in Hong Kong’s future. But I do think it’s a complicated situation and there are a lot of cross-currents as well.

So I think that … What we’ve been doing is trying to remind people of the importance of the international aspect of Hong Kong’s character. Hong Kong is a multi-character location, right? It is a Chinese city with Chinese culture, predominantly, but a high of internationalization, both culturally and economically. Unique ties into China, and a legal framework which is highly attractive in terms of the guarantees for freedom of expression, for fair court judgements, etc. And also, it has a very good reputation for clean government and the like. So that’s what people value about Hong Kong.

I think it’s important for the international community to remind the Hong Kong Government as well as the Hong Kong people, as well as the Beijing government, what it is that they value about Hong Kong.

SV: The reason I asked you about response is because, as you know better than I do, every time the United States, for example, as it did in the last week, make a comment about the jailing of the … or rather, the sentences imposed on the Occupy leaders, you immediately get a response from the Foreign Ministry saying that they resolutely reject meddling in internal affairs. The United States has no business even talking about these things.

CG Tong: Right, which is a completely incorrect perception of things.

Global affairs are … there’s a lot of interaction between societies, nations, governments, economies, and companies, and for someone to say that you can invest here but you’re voiceless is of course just not a responsible frame of mind.

Now, on that … you mentioned the case of the Occupy demonstrators that were sentenced recently. Our concern on that, to be precise, was not so much the sentencing, but rather the decision by the Hong Kong government to prosecute, and to prosecute using the charges that were brought, which seemed rather aggressive in assigning responsibility for collective action to a few individuals.

SV: You weren’t concerned about the length of the sentences, because compared for example with, in the United States, those Wall Street protesters, I think the longest sentence … Well, the length of sentence … – … was three months.

CG Tong: Right. Well, the length of sentences seemed to stem from the charges that were brought, and the decision to bring those specific charges was a Hong Kong Government decision, not the judge’s decision, and I think that that is, from our point of view, the cause of concern.

There’s been a lot of talk in Hong Kong about the need for reconciliation, de-politicisation, and looking forward rather than looking backward, and prosecuting those cases, and the way that they were conducted, seemed to be more focusing on the past rather than trying to think about what’s best for Hong Kong going forward.

SV: And just while we are talking about specific issues, on the matter of the pending extradition legislation, that is something that will directly concern, obviously, local people but foreign nationals living in Hong Kong?

CG Tong: I think that there is the … our concerns about the foreign fugitive transfer ordinance stem from several causes, and the sense of concern that it creates among the foreign community here, which I think is palpable.

What we sense real concern about is: What does this mean? How are things going to change? And people don’t really … there hasn’t been careful explanation of how this is going to work out for people yet, and I think that’s a concern.

We have a specific … as my British colleague makes in the context of the UK, for the U.S., we’ll have to have a conversation, if the law passes, about how we implement the U.S.-Hong Kong extradition arrangements going forward.

That’s a very technical issue, not the most important one, but I think there’s another aspect to this as well. It is this: what impact does it have on the political fabric of Hong Kong, and the sense of … that freedom of expression is still vibrant, freedom of assembly, peaceful assembly, is still something that people can enjoy without fear, without concern?

Fear is an interesting emotion because you can tell someone don’t be afraid, but that’s not going to make them not be concerned. I think that that concern, that emotional reaction, that sense of apprehension that people have, needs to be faced head-on, recognised as a reality, and then dealt with.

SV: So I suppose the bottom line here is … what you’re making a picture of is greater uncertainty?

CG Tong: I think uncertainty has increased.

Now, again, I don’t want to overemphasise that. We have … and I’ve got my little propaganda mug here. We have a whole campaign about how … reminding people how much the United States really does like Hong Kong. We’ve invested so much here, and that is not in any way a diminution of China’s sovereignty or influence in Hong Kong. It adds value to China and to Hong Kong.

In the unique context of “One Country, Two Systems”, maybe it’s important to be careful about how things are conducted.

SV: Well, Consul General, we’re just going to take a pause for a moment. We’ll be back after the break.

Welcome back. Well, we are continuing our discussion with the U.S. Consul General, indeed, in his residence.

Can I just ask you something about the current state of relations between the U.S. and China which are overshadowed by these trade talks? How much is the shadow of that affecting, if at all, what’s going on between the United States and Hong Kong?

CG Tong: Not much, is the short answer. I think that there’s been some impact from the trade negotiations on the Hong Kong economy, primarily because some Hong Kong investors have decided to forego investments waiting to see how the talks play out, both in terms of tariffs but also in terms of legal changes or structural reform changes that might happen in China, that could create more opportunities, or failure to accomplish them, creating less opportunities. And when people don’t invest and they are uncertain, then things slow down a little bit.

So I think there’s been … but I think I would not stress that too much. I think it’s been a small impact on Hong Kong.

And then in terms of our discourse between the United States and Hong Kong governments, it’s really had no impact at all.

SV: But there are people in the legislature in the United States who are saying: “You know what? Maybe we need to reconsider that.”

CG Tong: Well, I think this is a good chance for me to say a word about the Hong Kong Policy Act, which is our legal framework in the United States that allows us to treat Hong Kong separately from the mainland under U.S. law, and that has a number of aspects.

People generally refer to it as differential tariff treatment, and that’s a part of it. We apply different tariffs to Hong Kong than we do to the mainland because it’s a separate customs territory under the WTO.

But the Hong Kong Policy Act actually allows us to do much more than that. We treat Hong Kong differently under visa policy, in terms of law enforcement co-operation, even our aviation relationship is different – and investment rules can be different between the United States and Hong Kong.

So the concern for the U.S. is: if the distinctions between Hong Kong and the mainland are blurred, and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework is less clear, then maybe there would need to be adjustments in U.S. policy.

I don’t think we’re there yet, and …

SV: But it is actually under discussion, isn’t it?

CG Tong: People talk about it, sure. It’s a natural thing to talk about. For example, we had a … a Congressional study group came up with a report, and one of the things they suggested our government look at is the whole question of export controls and how they’re applied in Hong Kong.

Given the nature of the Hong Kong economy, that’s closest to China, it is something we were actually … It’s like: “Thank you very much. We’re actually already looking at that. We find that for the most part, having a separate export control regime for Hong Kong is justified and we’ll keep doing that, but thanks for the advice.”

So that’s the nature of the beast, and sometimes people misunderstand the degree of complexity with which the United States views Hong Kong.

SV: Is the direction of travel, with the concerns that have been raised about the diminution of autonomy, with the various things like the extradition law coming up, is it moving in the direction of re-assessing that relationship, that act?

CG Tong: Well, the word that we used in our Report was that Hong Kong has “sufficient” – and this is in the general sense – “sufficient although diminished” autonomy, sufficient for the United States to continue to treat it as a separate jurisdiction, and I think that’s a fairly solid conclusion.

But we also identified that the direction or the vector, if you will, over the previous year was negative. That’s not a reason or cause for panic, and I don’t think that things, just because … You shouldn’t draw two points and then put a line through them and say that’s the way the world’s going to go.

History is full of twists and turns, and things can get better as well as get worse, and so, I am actually hopeful that enlightened discourse in Hong Kong, and in Beijing, can lead to a re-doubling of Beijing’s commitment to Hong Kong’s autonomy. If Beijing thinks about it carefully and about what’s actually in their self-interest.

SV: There’s not much signs of that?

CG Tong: There are some signs, but not as much as I would like to see.

SV: There’s another aspect of the trade dispute which, again, hangs over it, which is this suspicion … actually, it’s not just in the United States but it seems to prevail in the United States, suspicion which is focused more recently on Huawei: whether their telecommunications systems are in fact sort of, I don’t know, covert spying agencies – I don’t know what it is – but there is a general atmosphere of distrust.

CG Tong: Yeah, I think … well, the Huawei issue is multi-faceted but distinct from the trade talks, which are also distinct from other issues, and it’s important to keep everything in its silo.

The thing about Huawei, one of the concerns for the United States is that because of the relationship between Huawei and the Central Government, that Huawei would not be in a position to refuse requests from the Chinese Government to insert backdoors or other forms of information transfer, in telecommunications technology that they have installed outside of China.

And so the United States is taking a very cautious approach to consideration of Huawei as a supplier of that kind of equipment in the U.S., and to be honest, we’re suggesting to other economies that they also look closely at the issue, not prescribing any particular approach, but suggesting there needs to be …

SV: You seem quite vigorous on that front?

CG Tong: Well, because we use the same networks overseas – our companies do, and our citizens do – and so, if those vulnerabilities exist in other nations’ telecommunications frameworks, then Americans would also be affected by that.

But we can’t dictate those outcomes in other nations, of course.

SV: And just coming back to Hong Kong: Does Hong Kong register on the Richter scale of American concerns more than a blip?

CG Tong: Well, when I go back to Washington and talk to members of Congress and senior people in the administration, they’re interested in the situation here. We’ve had visitors from Hong Kong visiting the United States, and that also generates interest.

We’d like to see more visitors, including Hong Kong Government visitors, visiting the United States, to help deepen the dialogue and add more granularity and texture to the conversation.

SV: It is quite curious: you’ve had people who are in the opposition, like Anson Chan, leading a delegation recently to the United States. Actually arguing on behalf of Hong Kong to retain the …

CG Tong: Well, sure, because that’s in Hong Kong’s interest, right? And they are Hong Kong people.

SV: But what I was trying to ask you was: what’s bizarre about that is you don’t seem to have had that argument put by members of the administration itself?

CG Tong: Well, I think they do as well, but frankly, Washington is a big and difficult place to work, right? Politically. I’ll admit that it’s not the easiest place to get a message out or to communicate and get through to people, so I think it requires special effort.

And so, I’m hopeful that Hong Kong will put a lot of effort into its relationship with the United States. There’s ample space within the Basic Law for Hong Kong to be vigorous

in pursuit of its interests as an SAR, as a Special Administrative Region.

SV: Now, can I ask you: You’re coming to the end of your period as Consul General here.

CG Tong: That’s what the rumor says.

SV: That’s what the rumor says, is it? Well, let’s work on rumor for a while.

CG Tong: Sure.

SV: If that is so, what has been the highlights of your time here?

CG Tong: Oh, I find that it’s a delightful place. The people are very open, anyone will talk to you about anything, which I think is nice. It’s really a great thing about Hong Kong society.

It’s also a very safe, clean place, great food – I’ve gained a lot of weight. All that is good. My wife and I, we regularly traipse around the woods here. We were very surprised at the environmental quality here – really positively surprised – because the image of Hong Kong in the United States is of neon signs and everyone pushing past each other like a “Blade Runner” kind of situation on the streets, but it’s actually a really wide open and pleasant place.

SV: Hong Kong has really been, among the scale of different places …

CG Tong: I don’t want to make any direct comparisons because then I’ll get calls from colleagues at those Consulates, but I think it ranks very high in the … Let me put it this way: diplomats love to come here. They think it’s a great place to work and live.

SV: Right. Well, Consul General, thank you very much indeed.

CG Tong: Thank you Stephen.