United States-Hong Kong Relations: Past, Present and Future

Remarks by U.S. Consul General Kurt W. Tong
Asia Society Hong Kong Center
July 2, 2019

(As prepared for delivery)

Good afternoon, ladies and gentleman.

First of all, allow me to thank the Asia Society Hong Kong Center for hosting me today. The Asia Society is one of the bright lights of this city, and it is always a pleasure to visit this beautiful facility.

It has been my great honor to represent the U.S. government and American people here in Hong Kong over these past three years. During my time here, I have had the chance to meet many extraordinary Hongkongers from all walks of life.

Mika and I have been able to explore the beauty of Hong Kong’s country parks, participate in the city’s vibrant cultural scene, and, of course, enjoy plenty of wonderful local food. I want to thank the Hong Kong people for the warm reception given to us. We will miss Hong Kong and we look forward to visiting many times in the future.

Observations from the Past

Now, ladies and gentlemen, given the events of yesterday, it is important for me to make one thing clear at the start of this speech.

As the State Department spokesperson said a few hours ago in response to scenes of violence and vandalism at the Legislative Council: “The United States urges all sides to refrain from violence. Hong Kong’s success is predicated on the respect for the rule of law, and fundamental freedoms, including its freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly.”

Also, to reiterate what President Trump said about the protestors: “They’re looking for democracy and I think most people want democracy.”

Now, my top priority here as Consul General, of course, has been the same as my predecessors – to affirm and reinforce the deep cultural and economic ties between the American and Hong Kong peoples.

These ties stretch across time and distance, and are constantly renewed by each generation.

One of my interests here, in fact, has been exploring the early history of America’s participation in the growth and modernization of Hong Kong, and also Macau and South China in general.

As you may know, our Consulate General is the oldest diplomatic mission in Hong Kong. And we are proud of the fact that our consular outpost here has also been open for more years than any other U.S. diplomatic mission in Asia.

Poking around in 19th Century history, I came across many interesting stories. My history reading also led me to conclude that the United States has long-term and abiding interests in this region, which have lasted for centuries and will continue for centuries to come.

Moreover, America’s goals here have been remarkably consistent, over the long years, and despite many changes in leadership and technology.

Speaking at the opening of an excellent exhibit on early 19th Century U.S.-China trade at the Maritime Museum earlier this year, I noted that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The consistent core interest of the United States in the Western Pacific has been opening doors to free and fair trade with China and other partners – and Hong Kong has been at the center of all that.

Speaking on the hangar deck of the USS Ronald Reagan when it moored in Victoria Harbor last October, I noted that for the past two hundred years, “America’s vision for the Indo-Pacific has been one and the same: a vision of open ports and open doors, and of stability and free commerce, with all nations committed to an open and fair architecture for commerce.”

Building on these ideas, last year, in 2018, our Consulate team launched a celebration of the 175th anniversary of our diplomatic presence in Hong Kong. You may have seen our 175th anniversary logo on lapel pins, or on the walls of the Consulate building, or even plastered on the side of a “ding ding” tram in the city.

Why the United States Loves Hong Kong

In fact, I am a big believer in succinct advertising, and in keeping the message right out front.

So you may have also seen our other ubiquitous logo, which I happily wear on my lapel again today, stating that the “U.S. Loves Hong Kong.”

Everyone loves to be loved, of course.

But our intended message is actually much deeper than that. We want people to understand not just that we love Hong Kong, but WHY we love it.

There are of course many reasons to love Hong Kong. The city is delightful to look at, especially at sunset from my home on The Peak. Hong Kong has great culture and great food. Its people are kind-hearted and hard-working.

But there are deeper reasons – the kinds of things that truly bind societies together.

Most important, Hong Kong has long attracted American affection because its economy and society stand out as positive models for all of Asia. This city points the way for others, by showing how open markets and good governance can reinforce one another, thereby creating prosperity.

Hong Kong is also remarkable for its respect for rule of law, not just rule by law, and for its independent judiciary, and for its sense of fair play. These are all attributes made possible and sustained by Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy as codified in the Basic Law.

These are indeed the attributes that continue to attract new American business people to Hong Kong, year after year. We now count close to 1,400 American firms operating here, significantly more than there were in 1997. And American companies continue to favor Hong Kong for their Asian regional headquarters, in numbers higher than those from any other nation.

Hong Kong is, quite simply, in the construct of America’s relations with the Indo-Pacific, and particularly with China, an indispensable partner for trans-Pacific teamwork by businesses, government agencies, academic institutions, media companies and cultural organizations. This type of cooperation greatly benefits both our societies.

There are also, of course, many personal, individual characteristics that Hongkongers and Americans share – such as respect for hard work, love of family, and kind-hearted civic-mindedness.

It is especially noteworthy that Americans and Hongkongers share a profound love of personal freedom, including freedom of expression.

This is why American scholars and journalists, as well as information businesses, love Hong Kong so much. It is a place where they can explore their ideas in relative liberty. We have seen that passion for personal freedom on clear display here in Hong Kong in recent weeks. A passion that is most clearly and effectively expressed when it is done peacefully.

In short, Hong Kong’s core values – openness, fair play, freedom, respect for diversity and an embrace of internationalism – are the key reasons why Americans love Hong Kong so much.

And we believe those core values are also the reason why Hong Kong is such a success story, both historically and looking forward to the future.

Current Concerns Impacting U.S.-Hong Kong Relations

Of course, as Consul General, I work not in the past but in today’s Hong Kong, to represent American interests amid modern realities. I do so with pride, and no apologies.

In that regard – and based on the firm understanding that America’s attraction to Hong Kong is based on Hong Kong’s distinctiveness within the Chinese system – I have naturally focused a great deal of my attention here on issues related to the maintenance of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy within China, as well as the overall integrity of the “one country, two systems” framework.

America’s formal relations with the Special Administrative Region are, as you know, based on the legal assumption that Hong Kong can and will retain its high degree of autonomy – except of course in matters of defense and foreign affairs – as guaranteed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law.

This situation is an actual matter of American law, as enacted in the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act. But it is also a matter of practicality.

Autonomy is the critical platform that enables Hong Kong to keep its liberal free market economy, and its democratic aspirations and civil liberties, within the context of being part of the People’s Republic of China. Mainland China, as we all know, operates according to a different system of governance.

Without autonomy, Hong Kong’s “capitalist system and way of life,” as the Basic Law provides, cannot survive.

Hong Kong’s rich social fabric and enviable economic prosperity have been built by the ingenuity and hard work of the Hong Kong people.

But the success of the Hong Kong people also stems from their freedom to operate in a market economy, and to benefit from a Common Law system that has proven to be especially effective in nourishing human potential.

From a U.S. Government point of view, therefore, whether the matter at hand is trade and investment promotion, or combatting transnational crime, or advancing academic and research cooperation, these features of Hong Kong enable our mutually beneficial cooperation to be far more efficiently advanced here than in other parts of China.

This useful situation is possible because Hong Kong is a separate and transparent jurisdiction that does not need to “look north” for every decision.

Now, I understand there is an impression here in Hong Kong that the United States, as represented by the U.S. Consulate General here, has become more assertive than before in offering some gentle criticism about recent political trends in Hong Kong. It is not a wrong impression.

Indeed, circumstances have been changing in the past few years, in ways that have obliged us to become more vocal. Our assertiveness is natural: with many tens of billions of U.S. dollars invested in Hong Kong, and tens of thousands of American citizens resident here, happenings in Hong Kong directly affect our interests.

It is important for you to understand, however, that our comments always come from a desire to see the best outcomes for both Hong Kong and the United States – and for the rest of China as well. So we’ve always been very careful and very methodical in our thinking about Hong Kong.

Three Years in Hong Kong

When I first arrived here in 2016 I did a fair amount of listening. I consulted with a wide spectrum of people from the private sector and civil society, as well as the Hong Kong Government. I started a public campaign to visit every district in Hong Kong – resulting in many awkward photographs eating noodles and other treats. I met with every member of the Legislative Council and the Court of Final Appeals.

After a few intensive months of listening, I came away with a profound appreciation of the great strength and resilience of Hong Kong – of both its people and its institutions. However, I also came away with a sense that there was growing anxiety here over Hong Kong’s future.

Thus, my first policy address, to the Foreign Correspondents Club in 2017, took as its central theme “Anxiety and Confidence in Hong Kong.” I gave similar remarks later that year to a Washington audience, titled “Risks and Opportunities in Hong Kong.”

Throughout 2017 and 2018, the Consulate team and I endeavored to send a concerted, if multi-faceted message: The United States values Hong Kong, and the starting point for Hong Kong’s level of autonomy is indeed quite high, but the direction is worrisome.

Social and political psychology is important. If people are confident, they will act with confidence – and then gain more confidence. If they are anxious, they might not act at all.

Therefore we stressed that autonomy can be a “use it or lose it” proposition. We called on Hong Kong leaders to be more bold and active globally, and to use Hong Kong’s unique “demonstration power,” as one of the region’s most successful societies, to more powerfully benefit this city, the rest of China, and the entire Indo-Pacific area, including the United States.

In my final year in Hong Kong, however, my team and I have observed continuing trends of diminishing autonomy, less confidence, and elevated anxiety.

In the most recent State Department Hong Kong Policy Act Report, which the Department is required to release each March, our colleagues identified a number of concerning events and trends in 2018 and in previous years.

Most importantly, the report documented an accelerating tempo of actions, taken either by the Central Government or by the Hong Kong Government, which seemed to undermine the high degree of autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” framework that everyone values.

For example, among other developments, the report took note of the decision to allow Mainland criminal law to be fully applied in Hong Kong’s new high-speed train station; the disqualification of electoral candidates based on their political views; the outright banning of one little-known fringe political organization; the expulsion of a respected foreign journalist for hosting a speech by that same organization; and the jailing of political activists for encouraging others to peacefully block traffic five years ago – all as examples of diminished autonomy and narrowing political space in Hong Kong.

Each of those cases cited in the Policy Act Report can of course be parsed legalistically. But in the end, the State Department could not escape the overall impression that Hong Kong had been changing in ways that made it look less like an autonomous jurisdiction. And they noted increasing pressure on the political and personal freedoms the people of Hong Kong currently enjoy.

Previewing this report, in February, at the American Club, I gave my most controversial speech in Hong Kong – at least until today! I actually did not expect the speech to be controversial, but apparently it hit a nerve somewhere, because after I gave it, someone decided to dispatch daily protest groups to the front of our Consulate to demand my resignation.

Buried deep in that speech, which was mostly about praising Hong Kong’s free market economy policy, I noted that “the Central Government’s desire to influence and control political conversations and events in Hong Kong could negatively impact the functioning of the economy, and the international business community’s role here.”

From the perspective of a diplomat who has worked for 30 years on international economic affairs, I thought that this statement was rather self-evident.

But upon reflection, I realized that it was a direct challenge to a certain key assumption of some important people in Beijing – the notion that China can both continue to benefit immensely from Hong Kong’s economic specialness, and at the same time work to bring the city’s political culture and patterns of governance toward greater alignment with Mainland Chinese norms.

I still believe that politics and economics cannot be so easily divorced. And I still believe that this is a risky strategy for Beijing.

Recent Events

The hot topic of recent days, of course, has been the Hong Kong Government’s proposed amendments to its Fugitive Offender’s Ordinance, which could allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to Mainland China and elsewhere for prosecution. It is a complex and serious issue, with a potentially significant impact on Hong Kong’s business community and political culture. As a result, our Consulate General discussed the matter with the Hong Kong Government in a serious manner, and in considerable detail.

But the strongly negative, apprehensive reaction of the Hong Kong business community, and the international business community, to the proposed legislation – which actually preceded the strong response we saw this month from the general public on the streets of Hong Kong – illustrates the point that I just made.

Economic performance cannot be separated from law and politics, because law and politics shape governance, and governance shapes the economy.

Investors in the Hong Kong economy – whether they are local investors or foreign investors, or Mainland investors, too – all want to see Hong Kong’s distinctive legal system and rules remain intact.

I think the business community wants Hong Kong to be part of China, but they also want it to remain different from the rest of China. In a sense, they just want the status quo.

And if that is what the business community wants, then that is what America wants too. Because as I explained at the outset today, U.S. interests in Hong Kong have always been powerfully driven by our desire for Hong Kong to help link the U.S. and Asian economies.

Of course, the recent large-scale protests here ultimately reflected questions that look beyond just the Hong Kong business community’s concerns. People from all walks of life were represented in the staggeringly large gatherings that streamed down the city’s streets last month, just a stone’s throw from where we are today.

Many commentators have said that the protests reflect distrust of the Mainland government, or dissatisfaction with living standards and economic opportunities, or displeasure with the direction of Hong Kong governance.

All that may be so. But in my American point of view, it seems to me that the courage and passion shown by the Hong Kong people on the streets of the city – and here I refer to those who have expressed their views peacefully – point out one other fundamental and important truth about Hong Kong: people here embrace and treasure the same personal and political freedoms as do other people around the world.

Thinking About the Future

So, by this point, some of you must be thinking: “Boy, this speech sure got serious.” “Can’t he just tell some jokes now?” Or maybe you are just wondering: “How can I get another cup of coffee?”

But please keep listening for just a few more minutes, because I would like to offer some parting thoughts about the future, before I depart this fine city.

I think it is worthwhile to consider what Hong Kong, Mainland China, and the United States can all do to help keep Hong Kong’s unique formula for success alive and well, for many years to come.

Today I want to say more than: “Don’t worry, things are not so bad.”

I want to tell you: “Things can get better, too!”

This is not just diplomatic happy talk. I really believe that Hong Kong can have an even brighter future. But what will it take?

First, for the Hong Kong Government and other Hong Kong leaders, I would like to suggest that they more firmly embrace the idea that Hong Kong’s dual identity – as both a city in China, and a place that is different from the rest of China – is an opportunity, rather than a burden.

People often remark on the difficulty the Chief Executive faces in doing her job because she is beholden to two masters – both the leaders in Beijing and the Hong Kong people. And those two groups do not always want the same thing.

But I think it is more useful to look at things from the positive side. Hong Kong is both the most prosperous city in the world’s most populous nation, and a place that has its own special cosmopolitan and global identity, along with a degree of interconnectedness with the rest of the world that is unique in Asia.

I would like to see Hong Kong actually double down, concertedly, on the notion of being “Asia’s World City.” I feel like this idea has faded in recent years, as Hong Kong leaders have devoted time to echoing Chinese priorities.

Hong Kong’s enduring competitive strengths, after all, lie mainly in its international character, not just its location in South China.

I really think it is very important to remember that the international elements of Hong Kong’s business community are vital to the city’s future success.

Consider this: Without the foreign investors and traders here, there is less reason for Hong Kong money to re-invest here. And without the concentration of foreign money and foreign expertise and foreign access that Hong Kong enjoys, there is also little reason for Mainland money to come here, either.

I would like for the Hong Kong Government to be energetic in reaching out to the United States, in particular. The United States is, after all, this city’s most important economic and cultural partner outside China.

Like many, I also believe it is important for Hong Kong’s leaders stay in close touch with the desires of the city’s people, the city’s distinct core values, and the city’s social, political and economic strengths.

It is these intangible factors, after all, that underpin and reinforce Hong Kong’s respected legal system, judiciary, rule of law, and good governance – as well as the natural affinity between the United States and Hong Kong.

As long as Hong Kong leaders work energetically with the city’s people, and its business community, and its international partners – especially the United States, of course! – I believe Hong Kong’s future is very bright.

Put simply, my parting advice is this: Do not worry so much about Hong Kong!

And my advice for those supervising Hong Kong affairs is: Less could be more!

Although Hong Kong was once British, it is no longer. Hong Kong is part of China. We should all be confident in Hong Kong’s future within China, and the positive role the city can play in China’s development.

Let me be clear: no serious person, or foreign government, wants to see some kind of “color revolution” in Hong Kong. Indeed, foreign investors want to see a Hong Kong that is stable, and rules-based, and transparent, and open, and prosperous – a part of China but unique, and an easy place to do business.

I think that China was, in fact, quite lucky to receive a city from Great Britain in 1997 that was already highly developed, and already tightly integrated into the global economy. In a sense, China inherited its very own ready-made London – there was no equivalent financial center in China at the time, and even today the Mainland continues to face the dilemma of internationalizing China’s finances while maintaining capital controls.

Hong Kong needs its autonomy – economic, political and social – to continue to thrive. This is why a “less is more” approach is needed.

Finally, let me say a word about U.S. policy and the U.S. stance toward Hong Kong.

I have already explained our public messaging. We endeavor to explain that the United States loves Hong Kong, but also explain why.

We have laid out our perception of the events of recent years, which seemed to be flowing in the direction of diminishing Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.

But we have also stressed our great confidence in the basic construct of Hong Kong, and our optimism about the city’s future.

My Consulate team and I have been very careful in our words and actions, in fact, to try not to be a factor that precipitates any loss of confidence in Hong Kong – although we do feel it is our responsibility to reflect the perceptions of the international community in our discussions here.

This is because Hong Kong’s value-added proposition, both in terms of its economic competitiveness and its attractiveness as a society, stem from its high degree of autonomy and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework.

Tomorrow I will be sending my last notes back to Washington, before departing the city on July 5.

In my message home, I will urge my colleagues to avoid flippant conclusions, and to keep matters in perspective. After all, the peaceful exercise of the freedom of expression and assembly by over a million people in recent weeks has validated that Hong Kong remains very different from the Mainland.

I also will ask my nation’s leaders to always remember our broad national interests in Hong Kong, and remember that Hong Kong is much more than just a study in contrast with Mainland China’s policies and governance.

As I already described, the people of Hong Kong and the people of the United States have a rich shared history, and we both benefit from a deep and complex relationship, which helps make the entire Indo-Pacific region a better place for everyone. I believe our relationship, and our societies, and this region, will get even better in the future.

Time to Say: “See You Later”

Finally, on behalf of both Mika and myself, as well as the other Consulate staff who are concluding our official duties in Hong Kong this summer, I would like to say a heartfelt “thank you” to everyone we have met in this admirable city.

People often ask me, “What do you like most about Hong Kong?” The easy answers relate to good food and good times. But the real answer to that question is that we like the Hong Kong people, whom I have found to be among the most open and welcoming anywhere in the world. I look forward to coming back often.

Until then, take care and good fortune.