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Interview

Former top US diplomat in Hong Kong calls unrest the 'new normal'

Kurt Tong believes Beijing won't deploy PLA but sees no quick fix from political woes

Kurt Tong, the top U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong until July, said that foreign governments must speak up for the territory. (Photo by Yuki Kohara)

TOKYO -- Kurt Tong, U.S. consul general in Hong Kong for three years until July, sees no reprieve for the time being from the unrest that has rocked the territory for more than three months.

"I'm worried that there could be a new normal [for] Hong Kong," the former top American diplomat in Hong Kong told the Nikkei Asian Review on Wednesday. He said this new normal was one in which "Hong Kong [is thought] to be unstable politically but still a good place to do business."

What started out as opposition against an extradition amendment bill that would allow suspects to be handed over to mainland China has ignited into a full-fledged confrontation with the Hong Kong government which is staunchly backed by Beijing.

Tong, who has witnessed the initial outburst develop into the current standoff, pointed out that the root cause of Hong Kongers' frustration -- even after the official withdrawal of the controversial bill -- is "anxiety" for the future.

"People are anxious about the future of Hong Kong," he said. London handed Hong Kong over to Beijing in 1997 under the Sino- British Joint Declaration and a so-called Basic Law which laid out a framework of "one country, two systems" that should effectively have preserved all the freedoms that the city had enjoyed under British rule until 2047.

Yet, just 22 years after the handover, it has felt to the people that the government seemed to be increasingly pushing for "one country" and diminishing the promise of "two systems." In particular, the Hong Kong government has thrown its weight behind China's ambitious Belt and Road and Greater Bay Area initiatives, signaling its willingness to bend to an increasingly powerful Beijing.

Tong, now a partner at Asia Group, a Washington-based consultancy headed by former U.S. diplomat Kurt Campbell, rejects the notion that Oct. 1 is the unspoken deadline for the resolution of this crisis. Oct. 1 is a significant date for Beijing - it is the 70th anniversary of the formation of the People's Republic of China. President Xi Jinping wants it to be a day of celebration of his government's achievements and in doing so, boost the legitimacy of his rule.

But Tong said, "it's just another day in October." He also shrugged off persistent worries about Beijing mobilizing the People's Liberation Army to quell the unrest. "It will be a huge mistake, and I think Beijing understands that," he said. "It will not succeed and [it will] make the problem worse."

Hong Kong protesters hold up umbrellas and U.S. flags during a rally to the U.S. Consulate on Sept. 8.   © Reuters

Tong said a way to break the deadlock is for the Chinese government to "give Hong Kong more space and let Hong Kong be Hong Kong." He said that most Hong Kongers do not seek independence from China, but want to be distinguished from mainland Chinese as they feel different. Yet, he said it is "the dissatisfaction that the mainland has shown toward Hong Kong's differences [that] makes Hong Kongers upset and defensive."

Ultimately, Beijing must show its commitment to the Basic Law. "'One country' is a fact and no one is trying to change that," Tong said. On the other hand, he said, "the real value proposition of Hong Kong comes from the 'two systems.'" The difference, as Tong described it, is an "honest win-win-win" for China, Hong Kong and the rest of the world, where the territory acts as an effective bridge between China and other countries, operating under the rule of law.

As stakeholders in the system, foreign governments must speak up on this issue, Tong said, although Beijing has repeatedly claimed that to be an interference in its internal affairs. Tong dismissed that by saying: "It's not the way the world works. Countries comment on each other's domestic policies."

Tong admitted that it was a fine balance for foreign governments as they must also not contribute to a loss of confidence in Hong Kong. The criticism of China over Hong Kong and the ongoing legislative process in Washington to push for a new bill on the territory "needs to be pursued carefully and not precipitously."

He said also that critics must not conflate Hong Kong's troubles with the U.S.-China trade negotiation, as they are "completely separate issues."

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