I sometimes wonder just what it is we Hongkongers have done to cause so many senior American officials to hate us.
We watch your films at the cinema, your shows on the TV, we listen to your music and sing your songs, we send our children to your colleges, we buy your goods, we visit your country as tourists. We take the family to Hong Kong Disneyland on the holidays. We like American products and services so much that on a per capita basis we are probably the biggest consumers in Asia. Yet somehow we seem to have rubbed you up the wrong way.
Partly of course this is a spillover from the economic war the United States is waging on China, we are simply collateral damage. Because the blows have landed so frequently we have become numb to just how many shots have been fired in this struggle. America has published a list of goods and services it will not buy from China even if they are best in class and competitively priced. The list is not a comprehensive and final one: additions can be and are made to it from time to time. No meaningful justification is offered, just vague references to national security and if that doesn’t work just a shout of “data” as if this were a compelling bogeyman. The real purpose seems to be to deny Chinese companies the volume of business their innovation has earned. And thereby incidentally also to deny American consumers better value for money.
There is a similar list of products and services that America has declared it will not sell to Chinese companies and individuals. These items would serve to boost the Chinese economy and improve the quality of life for ordinary people, but – the argument seems to be – would incidentally strengthen our country and make it too powerful, hence a threat to US interests. Paradoxically the ban is sometimes accompanied by a demand that China buy more goods and services from America. Anyway, the result is American companies lose business, and workers there lose employment opportunities, but somehow this is all in the country’s best interests.
There is another list comprising economic sectors in which China will not be allowed to invest. Such measures deny American companies access to capital they might need to expand, while simultaneously denying Chinese companies access to technology that would improve things for ordinary people. But “lose/lose” is apparently in everyone’s best interests. Go figure.
As if this situation were not bad enough, Washington also pressures its allies to introduce similar measures even when such steps are clearly not in the best interests of those countries themselves. That includes “pass on” controls where products manufactured elsewhere contain American technology.
The end result is the world economy being denied many of the benefits of free trade. Companies and individuals all suffer, protectionism is the name of the new game, even though we know from history that such policies make us all worse off.
Hong Kong of course is adversely affected, directly and indirectly from this situation even if we are not the primary target.
But apart from the general damage which hits all Chinese communities, there are some measures targeted specifically at Hong Kong. I am thinking here of the sanctions imposed on half a dozen of our senior officials including chief executive John Lee Ka-chiu. How does that help anyone. When Lee attends the next APEC meeting, how will American officials be able to relate to him? How does the US Consul General relate to him now on routine matters where a quick phone call could settle a minor matter and prevent it escalating.
The ”justification” – I use the term loosely -- offered for this blackballing is the involvement of these officials in the National Security Law. Why is it the business of any other government how a country protects its own security. The US and other countries have similar legislation. The NSL may not be perfect – I have already suggested in a previous column two ways in which it might be improved. But that is China’s business and not something requiring participation by Washington.
This interference was best illustrated back in February when the chairman of the House of Representatives Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party (what an arrogant title!) Mike Gallagher challenged the participation by AmCham chairman Geoffrey Siebengartner in the government’s “Hello Hong Kong” promotional video. What a contrast with 2003 when then Amcham chairman Jim Thomson played a full role in the recovery of the Hong Kong economy from SARS. The American Chamber and its member companies have a direct commercial interest in the health of the Hong Kong economy. Are they now to be prevented from defending their own corporate interests?
The next unjustified attack on Hong Kong interests is already being lined up, and that is direct flights by Cathay Pacific to East Coast US cities such as New York. Already there are noises in some quarters that Hong Kong and mainland carriers have an unfair advantage because they can fly through Russian airspace, a privilege not available to US airlines. But that situation is a direct result of American choices and actions, it is nothing to do with Hong Kong.
Just how far down this anti-Hong Kong road the US government is prepared to travel is not yet known. But one thing seems certain: Hongkongers love for all things American is unlikely to be requited in the near future.