US top diplomat in Hong Kong has urged Beijng to "let Hong Kong be Hong Kong", while revealing little details about Washington's potential move against Beijing invoking a national security legislation in Hong Kong.
Read the following Q&A with Hanscom Smith, US consul general, during an interview on Friday, attended by local media, including Citizen News.
Q1: Can you elaborate more on what kind of sanctions more likely (to be imposed)? Would it be individual sanctions, or would it touch on tariffs and customs, or even touch on currency exchanges? How do you see this sanction or decision will help the people of Hong Kong, would you agree that this sanction will end up hurting the people of Hong Kong, and more than a thousand US companies in the city? How can the US avoid or allow this happening?
A: Thank you for the two questions. As I said, this is a two-step process. First step was Secretary Pompeo's statement earlier this week and the submission to Congress of the Hong Kong Policy Act report, where we recommended Hong Kong (is) no longer sufficiently autonomous to warrant a separate treatment under US law. The second step as I said is for the White House. So I will not get ahead of the White House, so it's a two step process, and we're not at the second step yet.
Q1-follow-up: Just now you expected the measures to be targeted, but a lot of criticisms, they fear that these upcoming sanctions will affect Hong Kong people as well as the US companies in Hong Kong. How do you respond to that?
A: As I said, our intention is to mitigate the effects on the people of Hong Kong. We stand with the people of Hong Kong in the face of Beijing's encroachment of Hong Kong's high level of autonomy.
Q2: As for now, we all expect the national security law will go through the NPCSC, maybe as soon as next month. Secretary Pompeo already made an assessment that Hong Kong no longer enjoys a high degree of autonomy. So my question is, is it possible that the US administration will put forward any kind of responding actions, right before NPCSC completes the legislation? Any kind of timeframe should we anticipate right now?
A: As I said it's a two-step process, the second step comes from the White House. We are very concerned about the imposition by Beijing about national security legislation. Direct imposition of the legislation, rather than through Hong Kong's own institution, which is provided under Article 23 of the Basic Law, in our view will curtail people's liberty, and dramatically erode Hong Kong's autonomy.
I think many of you had seen the joint-statement issued earlier today with Canada, the United Kingdom, and Australia.
Q3: I want to turn to a broader question. Secretary Pompeo had described China "ruled by an authoritarian regime, a communist regime". This term authoritarian, has repeatedly been brought up in the statement by the US government. Does this entail a change of assessment, strategy versus China, where will eventually lead us to sanction or very few- or no room for cooperation? Do you agree with some of the description that Hong Kong is now the "new Berlin"?
A: Our concern has always been preserving Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. As I said, the Hong Kong Policy Act 1992 was passed by Congress precisely to help preserve and promote Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. And Secretary Pompeo's statement is a reaction to the fact that we see a steady erosion of that autonomy due to a variety of actions by Beijing. That's the first step of our response.
We are concerned that the national security legislation is the latest step of erosion to autonomy. There have been many other examples, and those are outlined in our Hong Kong Policy Act report and some of the previous reports.
Q3-follow-up: What about the very term of describing the ruling Chinese Communist Party as an authoritarian regime, does this change the assessment or the strategy (against China)? Do you cooperate with an authoritarian regime?
A: Again, I want to talk about Hong Kong, and the effect of Chinese policy here in Hong Kong. Because that's really, certainly my focus. The concern is that we've seen the steady erosion due to actions from Beijing on Hong Kong's autonomy, that's prompted Secretary Pompeo's statement and the language that you've seen in our Hong Kong Policy Act report.
Q3- follow-up: So is there a change in US strategy over Hong Kong, given this context, in face of an authoritarian regime? Do you agree with the description of Hong Kong is now the "new Berlin"?
A: Our policy on Hong Kong has always been the same. Back to the 1990s, it's based on the support for a high degree of autonomy.
Q4: Can you elaborate more on what do you mean by "let Hong Kong be Hong Kong"? Second question is- some politicians or the government said any sanction on Hong Kong or China may hurt the US more than Hong Kong. How do you comment on that?
A: Hong Kong is been a bastion of liberty, enterprises, vitality for decades. At the time of the hand-over, Congress passed the legislation, precisely because it was in our interest to preserve and promote Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. The Sino-British Joint-Declaration spelt this out very clearly, it's an international treaty, it's registered in the United Nations, and that's been the basis for what we hoped would be a continued high degree of autonomy. The goal was that mainland China would be more like Hong Kong, unfortunately we've seen efforts to make Hong Kong more like mainland China.
Q5: Two questions- can you ensure some special treatment can remain unchanged, as you said you are targeted at Beijing not Hong Kong people? Second one is, Beijing said the protests in Hong Kong is looking for Hong Kong independence. Does US have the same assessment, does US support the recent protests in Hong Kong?
A: As I said, the next step is with President Trump and the White House. As I said before, we're very clear that the United States recognises that Hong Kong is part of China, and we have no interest in destablising Hong Kong, and any allegations that we are- are false.
Q6: The American Chamber of Commerce has previously issued a statement, urging the US administration to prioritise the positive relationship between Hong Kong and the US. How could any kind of sanction or action taken by the White House not hurting the bilateral relations between Hong Kong and the US? According to your current assessment, how would US businesses here be affected, what are their main concern right now?
A: We think that the fantastic and very strong relationship we traditionally enjoyed with Hong Kong has been based on Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. We have enormous concerns about that autonomy, that's reflected in our report and the next step will be decided by the White House.
Q6-follow-up: What's the thought of US businesses here? What are they most fear about if the national security law has been enacted and passed by NPCSC, and also the responses and reactions from the US government?
A: I think the US business community has - I think, you probably seen Amcham's (American Chamber of Commerce) statement. I hope you had a chance to talk to them, there are a lot of different views in the US business communities, and we certainly have a good relationship with the Amcham so we can get a good sense of where they are.
Q7: Do you anticipate a retaliation of Chinese or Hong Kong government as to what actions that the US may take?
A: We are focused on Hong Kong, and what we want to do is to make sure that we can do what we can to promote the high degree of autonomy in the face of a continuing growing Chinese pressure.
Q8: Can I follow-up on, you mentioned you'd stand with Hong Kong people in your opening remark, that Hong Kong people will not be adversely affected. Basically I want to ask you, what do you have to say to the American businesses, do you stand with them too, or that the measures are targeted so they would not be affected as well? Can you elaborate on that point please?
A: Sure. As I said, our goal is to mitigate the effect on the people of Hong Kong and have targeted measures. At the same time, we are definitely focused on making certain that all the steps reinforces Hong Kong’s autonomy.
Q8 follow-up: So how about American companies in Hong Kong? What do you have to say to them, because they are worried that their businesses will be affected.
A: Yes, right. We talk to the group very regularly to make certain that they have as much information as they can about US policies and our goals here. So they are very clear as to where we stand, and of course we are very open to hearing from them as well.
Q8 follow-up: Hong Kong government also mentioned about the importance of free trade, and Hong Kong is a member of the WTO, things like that. Would the White House decision contravened principles of free trade and how WTO works?
A: Oh, I won't get ahead of the White House.
Q8 follow-up: Of course you won't get ahead of the White House. But in this decision making process…
A: Right, this as I said this is a two-step process, and the next step lies with the White House.
Q9: Can I check with you what's the last time met with the chief executive Carrie Lam, and what area that you discussed? What's the last time that you, if you had the chance to, went to Beijing to talk to the Chinese officials there?
A: So my last trip to Beijing was last year. And I talked to many senior members of the Hong Kong government on a regular basis. (Q: Approximately which month?) Well, I've been up to including this month, yes I've seen senior Hong Kong government leadership and many counterparts very regularly.
Q10: There are Chinese officials and pro-China politicians in Hong Kong often using this argument in Hong Kong, saying that there're lots of national security laws in Hong Kong. Why can't Hong Kong had a national security law, and the Chinese national security law will only target foreign interference. Why is the American government so worried? What do you have to say to such argument?
A: Imposing a national security law from Beijing contradicts the spirit and practices of the Joint Declaration and one country, two systems.
Q11: According to the Hong Kong Policy Act report, US has already observed how China destroyed the autonomy since 2014. Quite a lot of people felt the response from the US comes little bit late, little bit mild. May I know your reply to them, is that too mild and too late?
A: I think we've already been very explicit. You can go and find our annual Hong Kong Policy Act reports where we lay it out very clearly, and we had these discussions here in Hong Kong, and in Beijing very regularly. As we've seen, an accelerating encroachment on Hong Kong's autonomy.
The national security legislation is a particular problem. You’ve seen we've spoken about it repeatedly and very strongly, but of course there's other examples as well. That's lay out in the Hong Kong Policy Act reports.
Q12: One more question is that, many protesters, their slogan is if you burn, you burn with us, against the Chinese government. Since they are ready to sacrifice everything even the economy. Seems they expected a lot from the States right now, seems some extreme sanctions against China. What can we expect from the United States?
A: You can always expect the United States to be very firm and consistent in supporting Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, and holding accountability to the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Q12 follow-up: There are rumours that Hong Kong may lose it's separate customs territory status alter, maybe from the United States. There are some rumours that China may treat this as "acts of war". Is it just a rumour, and if China has such action or treat that as a "war", how will the United States respond?
A: I hope I have been clear in my reply and our baseline is, that's supporting the Joint Declaration and the high degree of autonomy. We've been explicit about our concern through the Hong Kong Policy Act report, and Secretary Pompeo's statement. The next step lies with what the White House decides.
Q13: Beijing always attacks the US as backing up the protests in Hong Kong, and saying that the US has the linkage with the many legislators in Hong Kong. After the national security law, will some acts in the US been affected?
A: We support the right of assembly and peaceful protests. We oppose violence. We are doing everything we can to make certain that Hong Kong is as free as open as possible, consistent with the terms of the high degree of autonomy promised in the Joint Declaration.
Q14: Can I picked up on Secretary Pompeo's statement about the situation on the ground. Beijing and Hong Kong governments have basically called the protesters as terrorists and separatists, defining the issue as national security. Does the US make a different assessment, is this national security issue, or local law enforcement security issue?
A: Again, our concern is when this issue is discussed, according to the Joint Declaration and the high degree of autonomy, has it’s own mechanism in passing laws about national security legislation. And we don't think it should be imposed by Beijing.
Q15: And to clarify the question about meeting with Carrie Lam, as your answer is about meeting Beijing officials…
A: No, no. I was in Beijing last year, once. I met with Hong Kong officials all the time, at a senior level, including Carrie Lam.
Q16: Do you think she totally understands the stance from the United States?
A: We are very clear and forthright in our conversion with Hong Kong government officials.