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Interview

US cannot fix China in one day, says ex-diplomat in Hong Kong

Hasty decisions put Washington at risk of falling into trap: Kurt Tong

Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters hold U.S. flags during a Thanksgiving Day rally at the Edinburgh place in 2019.   © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. is making too many decisions on China too fast, preventing Washington from obtaining the policy goals it seeks, says Kurt Tong, a former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong.

Tong spoke with Nikkei after U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to start stripping Hong Kong’s special privileges in response to Beijing’s move to place broad national security powers over the city.

Trump also announced terminating ties with the World Health Organization, accusing the U.N. body of maintaining cozy ties with China.

Tong is critical of China's national security law, calling it a "bad move" that is going to "upset more people in Hong Kong, making it less stable."

While the scope of the U.S. action remains to be seen, Tong says he hopes Washington does not resort to actions that would harm Hong Kong and instead focuses on convincing China to reverse its course. “Because hurting U.S. companies and hurting Hong Kong people doesn't hurt China,” he said.

Tong takes a long view on dealing with China and says the U.S. should aim for making gradual progress instead of trying to “fix everything today.”

Tong, currently at the Asia Group, is a leading expert in East Asian affairs. He served as the top U.S. diplomat in Hong Kong until summer 2019.

Edited excerpts from the interview follow.

"I do think that Hong Kong is going to be a less attractive place to live and work because of what China is doing," says Kurt Tong.(Photo courtesy of the Asia Group)

Q: How do you assess the president’s China announcement?

A: My hope is that the U.S. only does things which don't have a big negative impact on Hong Kong's people and economy and on U.S. companies trying to do business in Hong Kong.

Because hurting U.S. companies and hurting Hong Kong people doesn't hurt China. And so, if we're angry at China for imposing the national security law on Hong Kong, the focus of our unhappiness should be China, not people in Hong Kong. The U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act is a two-edged sword. It's almost like a trap that the U.S. and Washington are stepping into, hurting its own interests by weakening Hong Kong.

Q: What do you expect China’s reaction will be?

A: I think there are three things China would do. On the WHO announcement, China will use that to their advantage to portray the United States as not a good member of the international community, and say China is a good team player in the U.N. system and the U.S. is not. They will use it for their propaganda.

Regarding [halting] visas for Chinese students, I would expect China to specifically retaliate in the same category, on Americans’ access to China.

And on Hong Kong, they would just say that Hong Kong needs a national security law.

But I don't expect them to do any specific retaliation on the Hong Kong actions because, frankly, the U.S. actions on Hong Kong don't really hurt China.

Q: What is Trump’s intention?

A: Well, this is a problem of Hong Kong policy. It's not clear whether the president wants to damage Hong Kong’s economy and financial markets or not. Because, doing that is bad for the U.S. and bad for Hong Kong. He certainly understands that. I think President Trump is in this trap and, frankly, Congress is in the same trap.

Q: What was behind China’s decision to impose the national security law? They knew there was going to be a backlash.

A: It’s a bad move and not a smart move by China because the national security law is going to upset more people in Hong Kong, making it less stable. China had an opportunity not to make this mistake. And so they caused the problem by making those mistakes in the treatment of Hong Kong. They're making the situation worse every step they take.

The thing that surprised me was the decision to impose the law going around the Legislative Council of Hong Kong. That’s very aggressive and very disrespectful of 'one country, two systems.' And also including the ability for the mainland police to operate in Hong Kong is a clear violation of both the letter and the spirit of the Sino-British declaration and the Basic Law. That's also very aggressive and also very counterproductive. It’s really, really a terrible decision.

Q: Has the 'one country, two systems' broken down?

A: Well, it's in the process of being badly damaged. I do think that Hong Kong is going to be a less attractive place to live and work because of what China is doing.

And the distinctions between China and Hong Kong are being eliminated by China. It's too bad and ultimately it could lead to Hong Kong no longer being as useful for China. The thing we should remember is that China has so much more influence over the future of Hong Kong than the United States does. The focus on U.S. policy, I think, is mistaken. I think the key focus should be on what China does and trying to convince China in various ways. 

Q: What is your view on current U.S.-China relations? 

A: There's a big disagreement inside the U.S. Even among the same people talking about China, they are unclear what their goal is, whether they actually want a complete breakdown and decoupling and separation with China, or whether they want China to change, or whether they just want to defend certain aspects of the way that China impacts the United States. It's very confusing and the same people will often say different things on different days.

It’s confusing and frankly I think that too many decisions are being made too fast. That is not necessarily good for the American people. There should not be a crisis in U.S.-China relations because China is not going away. One hundred years from now, China's going to be there and the U.S. is going to be here. So we don't need to try to fix everything today. And we can try to make some progress, and in a more stable fashion. I know that sounds like a real soft stance, but I’m not soft on China. I'm just realistic about how much we can accomplish by doing one piece of negative action after another.

[Trump] has a different calendar than the American people. The American people will be here after Nov. 3.

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