The former and incumbent US consuls general to Hong Kong have recently written about events in the city and the shape of things to come, with both highlighting Washington’s commitments to the city’s democracy as well as the need to maintain its pre-eminent status in finance and trade in the region.

Hanscom Smith assumed his new tenure in June as the head of the US consulate in the former British territory, one of America’s largest diplomatic missions. He arrived at a time when Hongkongers’ angst against a contentious amendment to existing extradition laws to allow the rendition of fugitives to mainland China and elsewhere began to simmer.

In an op-ed on International Human Rights Day on December 10, sent to Chinese and English newspapers in Hong Kong, Smith lamented that the fundamental freedoms the people of the city have historically enjoyed under the “one country, two systems” framework were increasingly under threat.

US Consul General to Hong Kong Hanscom Smith. Photo: Handout

“The US reiterates its unwavering support for Hong Kong’s cherished freedoms, legal system and way of life. It is the US’ long-standing policy that China honor its commitments to protect those rights, as outlined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984, an international treaty filed with the United Nations,” wrote Smith.

Smith also touched upon the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would “augment” the Hong Kong Policy Act in place since 1992. The new legislation, notwithstanding Beijing’s ire, cleared both the House and Senate floors with “veto-proof, bipartisan backing” and was swiftly signed into law by US President Donald Trump at the end of last month.

The 1992 act stipulates the US’ approach to treat the territory as a separate entity for the purpose of US law, with support for democratization as a fundamental principle, while the new act mandates the Secretary of State to assess the well-being of the city’s autonomy and freedoms to determine the continuity of preferential trade treatment as well as possible sanctions against local and mainland Chinese officials.

Smith said the human rights of Hongkongers were of great importance to the US amid the American people’s growing concerns over Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s autonomy, and these rights were “directly relevant to US’ interests in the city,” including the almost US$67 billion in annual bilateral trade between the two economies.

Hong Kong, for more than a decade, remains the US’ single largest source of trade surplus among all its trade partners, an amount that exceeded US$33 billion in 2018, according to US statistics.

It was revealed that Smith was summoned by Commissioner of the Chinese Foreign Ministry in Hong Kong, Xie Feng, after the US Senate unanimously passed the Hong Kong act last month. Smith told Xie that the US consulate or the State Department could not control the bills passed by the US Congress.

A protester waving the Stars and Stripes and Hong Kong flags in front of government headquarters in Hong Kong during an anti-extradition bill rally. Photo: AFP/Vernon Yuen/NurPhoto

The US Consulate General in Hong Kong. Photos: Asia Times

‘Real risk’

Smith’s predecessor Kurt Tong, who was Washington’s envoy to Hong Kong between 2016 and 2019, also expounded on what the US can – and cannot – do to help preserve the city’s autonomy in a column that appeared in the November-December issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.

Tong is now retired and works at a consultancy in Washington.

“At issue today in Hong Kong is not simply when and how the protests end. More consequential is whether Hong Kong’s uniquely autonomous status within China, as defined by the ‘one country, two systems’ paradigm, can survive the current crisis,” said Tong, warning about a real risk that the US could inadvertently make matters worse.

Former US Consul General to Hong Kong Kurt Tong is surrounded by a scrum of reporters. Photo: Handout

Tong said US policy on Hong Kong must not undermine or alter the status quo as well as the systems in place or destroy the international community’s faith in the “one country, two systems” agreement and the city’s sustainability going forward, to safeguard its own substantial interests in and trade surplus from the city.

He then came to the defense of Hong Kong’s freedoms and institutions, claiming they were largely intact with the city continuing to exercise a high degree of autonomy, despite the current pandemonium and the perceived trend of Beijing’s meddling, evident in the drawn-out unrest ignited by the extradition bill amendment.

Tong particularly cautioned against collateral damage to Hong Kong when the US and the international community sought to hold China accountable.

Contrary to Smith’s positive remarks on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, Tong was concerned and said that while the new legislation would manifest US’ support, it may pose new risks, like the “destructive consequences” for Hong Kong’s international relations, economy and autonomy if the US ceased to recognize the city’s special status.

“It would be more effective to entrench and support Hong Kong’s autonomy through US’ policies, rather than pursue a shift from Beijing,” said Tong.

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