Hong Kong issue only an insignificant part of US diplomacy

Lianhe Zaobao journalist Tai Hing Shing notes that even as evidence shows that the US does not value Hong Kong as much as pro-democracy Hong Kongers think it does, overly idealistic Hong Kongers still buy into the narrative that the US will step in on Hong Kong’s behalf in dealing with Beijing. It is time for this group to wake up.
People use umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain in Hong Kong, China, on 16 June 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
People use umbrellas to protect themselves from the rain in Hong Kong, China, on 16 June 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

It has been four years since the anti-extradition bill protests in Hong Kong, and many details about that period have surfaced. A new book by two US reporters reveals the inside story of how Demosisto founder Joshua Wong sought political asylum from the US.

The book refers to the Chinese government implementation of the Hong Kong national security law on the night of 30 June 2020, when Wong, whose passport had been confiscated by the Hong Kong police for another case, wanted to follow the example of Chen Guangcheng, a blind Chinese dissident, who entered the US consulate to seek asylum to escape from China. On the morning of 30 June, Wong met two US diplomats at St John’s Building — a building opposite the US consulate where some of the consulate's offices are housed.

However, the office tower does not offer the protection of a diplomatic compound, and Wong told them, “I don’t want to leave. I want to go to the US consulate.” But Wong’s request was rejected by the US consulate, and he had no option but to leave.

Through an intermediary, Wong sent an email to then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “But there is legitimate danger that I become a prime target of arrest and detention.” At that time, Washington was preparing to shut down the Chinese consulate in Houston due to “espionage activities”, and the US consulate general in Hong Kong would likely be shut down by Beijing in retaliation if it took in Wong. Following discussions, Pompeo and US officials decided that Wong was not worth the risk, and declined to offer protection. 

The authors subsequently queried a US official who was involved in the decision-making process, and the reply is noteworthy: “You’ve got national interest and personal interest, and in some ways you try to find a balance between the two.”

... the biggest mistake of the pro-democracy camp is being overly idealistic, like Joshua Wong.

People in Central, a financial hub in Hong Kong, China, on 3 July 2023. (May James/AFP)
People in Central, a financial hub in Hong Kong, China, on 3 July 2023. (May James/AFP)

In the age of the global village, schools often educate their students to have the consciousness of a global citizen; but in reality, the world is still a disordered international political system. When it comes to national interest, every government would first consider its own country’s survival and safety, with almost no place for moral judgement. Thinking that the global society will value moral principles is immature idealism.

Wong’s plight is but another proof of such a cruel reality. In the eyes of the US government, so-called national interest means America’s interest, and so-called personal interest means Wong’s interest. As the US official says in the book, the US considered its own interest, and to protect it, ultimately sacrificed Wong’s personal interest.

An overly idealistic pro-democracy camp

Since Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the biggest mistake of the pro-democracy camp is being overly idealistic, like Joshua Wong. Following the Occupy Central movement, a local, radical separatist force has splintered from the pan-democracy camp, which thinks it has the support of Western countries and can go to any lengths to wreck the current order and challenge the mighty Chinese central government.

In fact, the Hong Kong issue is only an insignificant part of US diplomacy.

A few years back, China-US relations were turbulent, with the Trump administration taking a hard stance against China. This led radicals in Hong Kong to be even more optimistic, naively thinking that the US would help them. Thus, they called loudly for the US government to openly interfere with domestic politics in Hong Kong, even clamouring for Hong Kong independence. Such behaviour in disregard of reality is doomed to end in tragedy.

Four years on, there are still many pro-democracy politicians who have yet to awaken. Many foreign pan-democracy media outlets have, in their reports of Wong’s plight as the “abandoned chess piece” of the US, either intentionally or unintentionally avoided tackling the issue head on. They focus on Washington’s consideration of helping Wong escape by sea, in a bid to highlight the US government’s diligent contribution towards the people of Hong Kong. Such reporting is highly irresponsible, and would only continue to mislead some unthinking Hong Kongers to wrongly believe that the US prioritises the interests of the Hong Kong people.

Wishful thinking

In fact, the Hong Kong issue is only an insignificant part of US diplomacy. One recent example is how the US Department of State assured Congress that it would not invite Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee to the APEC Informal Leaders Summit in San Francisco from 11 November, due to US sanctions. Yet, the Hong Kong government issued a press release this month claiming that Lee was personally invited to attend the summit, but was unable to attend due to “scheduling reasons”, and the summit would instead be attended by Financial Secretary Paul Chan.

Participants wait to take part in the Harbour Race, where swimmers cross Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, in the city on 12 November 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
Participants wait to take part in the Harbour Race, where swimmers cross Hong Kong's Victoria Harbour, in the city on 12 November 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

Those with any knowledge of diplomatic language would see at once that the US sent an invitation to the Hong Kong government and Lee chose not to attend. This is a carefully crafted diplomatic game between China and the US without impacting China-US relations, allowing the Chinese and US governments leeway to step back gracefully. Ironically, groups of Hong Kongers overseas thought that Lee not attending the APEC summit was because their lobbying efforts had worked.

... regardless of how important a role Hong Kong plays, it is unwise to overestimate its role from the perspective of US diplomatic policy.

Recently, some organisations of Hong Kongers in the US announced that they would launch a series of protests during the APEC summit period. With dozens of other human rights organisations, co-signed a letter to US President Joe Biden, asking him to get Chinese President Xi Jinping at the meeting to release political prisoners such as Jimmy Lai and Joshua Wong, as well as to revoke Hong Kong’s national security law. These pro-democracy groups seem to still be living in their own fantasy bubble, thinking that the US places a high emphasis on Hong Kong.  

One must concede that regardless of how important a role Hong Kong plays, it is unwise to overestimate its role from the perspective of US diplomatic policy. Hong Kong is but a special administrative region under China’s purview, and “China-US-Hong Kong” is in fact an uneven trilateral relationship, with China-US relations at its core. US-Hong Kong relations is just an extension of the “China-US-Hong Kong” relationship; the former is deeply impacted by the latter.

The Trump and the Biden administrations will only consider the Hong Kong issue in terms of the framework of China-US relations. With the US presently keen to pursue warmer relations with China, it would not stir up the Hong Kong issue. It is truly baffling how pro-democracy Hong Kongers overseas have yet to awaken from their dreams, even after four years of displacement.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “香港人“梦”仍未醒”.

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