The Debate | Diplomacy | East Asia

What Are America’s Interests in Hong Kong?

The hardnosed new U.S. approach to Hong Kong may actually end up undermining U.S. interests in the region.

Jin Kai
What Are America’s Interests in Hong Kong?
Credit: Pixabay

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 epidemic has failed to bring the world together like a common threat should have. Despite the evolving and possibly enduring pandemic, a new rift between China and the United States over this public health crisis, which has infected over 3.6 million worldwide as of May 6, may have proved just how ossified contemporary world politics has become. No one should be comfortable with this agonizing and perplexing situation.

Washington’s dissatisfaction with and accusations against Beijing are not limited to the virus issue. A few days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “slammed” China over the arrest of Hong Kong protesters (who were soon released, pending court hearings). He told the press on April 29 that “any effort to impose draconian national security legislation on Hong Kong would be inconsistent with Beijing’s promises and would impact American interests there.”

It’s true that the United States holds tremendous interests in Hong Kong and has for many decades, albeit with different purposes.

From the first Opium War (1839-1842), after which the Qing court was forced to cede Hong Kong to the British, to the outbreak of World War II, the United States never challenged the legitimacy of Britain’s colonial occupation of Hong Kong. It was not until the Cairo Conference of November 22-26, 1943, when World War II was coming to an end, that then-U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt supported returning Hong Kong, which was then under Japanese occupation, to China. The Americans had two rationales: first, an ideological consideration of worldwide decolonization; second, a pragmatic consideration of what the post-war world order would look like. However, the Communists’ victory in mainland China caused such a subtle but profound change in the U.S. attitude toward Hong Kong, and this city became an indispensable political and ideological outpost in the Far East during most of the Cold War era. Hong Kong even once was an important military equipment transfer hub for U.S. forces in the Vietnam War. Until today, the U.S. Navy still requests to visit Hong Kong port for various supplies.

At the same time, economic growth in Hong Kong since the 1960s also made the United States aware of Hong Kong’s economic and also “psychological” value, particularly when mainland China was still mired in a lagging economy and gripped by nationwide political chaos. By the time the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong was set up in 1969, hundreds of U.S. businesses had already flooded into Hong Kong. By the end of the 1970s, when Hong Kong became the world’s third-largest financial center after London and New York, the United States had been Hong Kong’s largest trading partner for nearly two decades.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

China decided to open and reform in the late 1970s. During the same period, while completing the transformation of its economy and manufacturing industry, Hong Kong played a significant role as a re-export trade center in Sino-U.S. economic and trade exchanges. Many U.S. businesses also regarded Hong Kong as a window through which to reach and explore mainland China’s huge market, which was rapidly emerging. Despite a sequence of global and regional changes and crises that inevitably impacted Hong Kong, according to U.S. State Department data there are now more than 1,300 U.S. firms, including 726 regional operations, and approximately 85,000 American residents in Hong Kong.

However, U.S. “investments” and “interests” in Hong Kong have never been limited to trade and economic exchanges. Given Hong Kong’s unique role as an international trade, finance, and logistics center under China’s political arrangement of “one country, two systems” that keeps Hong Kong’s capitalist system and ensures its high autonomy, there have been numerous intangible political activities, including in “gray areas,” in the context of the changing Sino-US relations. For example, providing financial and professional support to opposition groups in Hong Kong in their various movements has been an important tool of U.S. Hong Kong policy, which is “grounded in the determination to promote Hong Kong’s prosperity, autonomy, and way of life.” According to the annual reports openly released by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, between 2016 and 2019, over $2.39 million in grants were dispatched to different agencies to support democratic or human rights movements mainly in Hong Kong, including the Solidarity Center, Justice Centre Hong Kong Limited, and International Federation of Journalists (Asia Pacific).

Since the spring of 2019, opposition groups in Hong Kong have gone far beyond peaceful demonstration, and many of them advocate “lam chao,” which roughly means “self-destruct together.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress passed several important bills on Hong Kong in a brief time in late 2019, including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which would pose diplomatic action and economic sanctions against Hong Kong in certain scenarios. Also, an article in the Further Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2020 demands that not less than $1.5 million (from the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor) shall be made available for democracy programs in Hong Kong, including legal and other support for democracy activists.

It is worth pondering that Washington has significantly raised its voice accusing the Chinese government of cultural aggression in funding Confucius Institutes even while the United States itself is generously funding various movements of opposition groups in other countries and regions and persistently exporting American values.

Now let’s return to Pompeo’s remark made at the press conference on April 29. Why is Washington so uncomfortable with the implementation of a clearly stated article in Hong Kong’s Basic Law? To note, Article 23 of the Basic Law of Hong Kong SAR states:

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.

This article centers on the indisputable right and responsibility that any sovereign country and any part of its territory should be endowed with, especially when national security issues like inbound threats and outbound conspiracies are concerned. Why would national security legislation passed by the government of Hong Kong in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, a territory of the People’s Republic of China, impact “American interests”?

It’s worth noting here in the United States’ latest National Security Report of 2017, China was mentioned 33 times, and (together with Russia) was described as one of the “revisionist powers” that “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.” Unfortunately, Beijing does not have a deeply rooted “united front” in Washington to disrupt and impede any U.S. national security legislative attempts that could “impact Chinese interests.” It seems, though, the U.S. feels able to disrupt China’s efforts to pursue national security in Hong Kong.

Another interesting point is that U.S. policies on Hong Kong and “American interests” in Hong Kong may not always stay in line with each other. Obviously, Sino-U.S. relations are the inevitable framework for observing the relationship between the United States and Hong Kong, a colony under British rule before 1997 and a special administrative region under the jurisdiction of the Chinese central government after that. For most of the history of China-U.S. diplomatic relations, U.S. policy on Hong Kong had remained relatively stable. The United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, for example, found a delicate balance between the interests of (mainland) China, Hong Kong, and the United States. That’s why it has remained as a foundational document to guide U.S. policies on Hong Kong for more than two decades.

However, a few years ago we began seeing signs of some fundamental changes in the Sino-U.S. relationship. While the relationship had been through relatively stable cyclical changes in the past, U.S. policies on and interests in Hong Kong largely stayed in focus, though with some minor changes and modifications. However, as President Donald Trump took office, the cornerstone of the Sino-U.S. relationship has been severely eroded, and many believe that the relationship can no longer return to its former state. Under such circumstances, at least some parts of the U.S. policies on Hong Kong and U.S. interests there are likely to lose their former frame of reference, and thus become unstable and even rash.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

For example, in the context of the current Sino-U.S. confrontation, the United States has offered unconditional and comprehensive support of the opposition groups – and that has inevitably led to more radical activities, which exacerbated social and economic turmoil in Hong Kong. This not only damages Hong Kong’s interests but also will certainly damage the long-term interests of the United States in Hong Kong, be it commercial or cultural. It is in this regard that the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 may have just approved the more aggressive and even radical aspects of current U.S. policies on Hong Kong, particularly against the background of the rapidly changing international relations and Sino-U.S. relations.

What are the American interests in Hong Kong? Is it a political and ideological outpost, an economic and financial bridge or window, or a protruding frontline of Washington’s new strategic campaign against the increasingly “assertive” China?

The hardline policies of the United States involving Hong Kong may not be in the interest of all parties, including the United States itself. As my last piece on the Hong Kong issue suggests, it is in Hong Kong’s best interest to remain as a “Pearl of the Orient,” rather than a playground or even a frontline in Washington’s new stand to China. It also should be in Washington’s best interest to keep Hong Kong that way.