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Ambassador Kurt Tong on What Hong Kong Can Expect from the Biden Presidency

Changing Hong Kong’s trade status is not likely to be a priority for President-elect Joe Biden, said Ambassador Kurt Tong, the former U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, in a Zoom interview with the FCC on Tuesday night. Though he was cautious not to speculate on any specific policies the new administration might implement in Asia, he said Biden and his advisors understand the importance of dealing with China, a task that might intentionally be made more challenging by the outgoing Trump administration over the next two months.

“The diplomatic dance between China and Biden is going to be an interesting one, and one worth watching,” said Tong, who has left public service and now works for strategic advisory firm The Asia Group in Washington. However, due to limitation in political bandwidth and a need to focus on challenging domestic issues including the coronavirus pandemic and economic stimulus, he projected that foreign policy would not be at the top of the new administration’s agenda.

Ambassador Kurt Tong Ambassador Kurt Tong

Asked what the Biden administration could to do reset U.S.-China relations, Tong said, “I question that ‘reset’ is the right word. I think the idea that the U.S. and China are in a relationship that is characterized by competition is widely accepted, so it’s not how do we get back to friendly, but rather how do we make this competition healthy?” He also predicted that the world could expect to see a see a more calm and consistent approach to international negotiations from the new administration.

“Trump’s negotiating style is to be unpredictable,” said Tong. “That is great when you’re signing leases in New York City. That is harder to make work when you’re dealing with other cultures and countries that don’t trust you. Being unpredictable tends to lead the other party to not continue the conversation.”

Commenting on the unpredictable transition period between presidents that lies ahead, Tong expressed concerns. “The focus over the past six months has been on rhetorical one-upmanship and high-profile but not terribly effective measures,” he noted, citing TikTok and WeChat as examples. “I worry that the Trump administration will try to do more of these things in the next couple of months in ways that may box in the Biden administration.”

“There are plenty of people already thinking about the 2024 election,” he remarked.

Reflecting on his time in Hong Kong, the former U.S. envoy wondered whether the 2019 protests may have gone too far and inadvertently led to the passage of the National Security Law. “The first time that tear gas started flying around made me very uncomfortable, because that can always lead to escalation, which it did,” said Tong.

“The two large peaceful marches in June – if it had stopped there and given the Hong Kong government a little bit of time to digest that and realize they needed to walk back from the extradition bill, there could have been a different outcome,” he added.

Tong also expressed doubts about some of the protesters’ tactics: “Invading the Legislative Council, it’s hard to see how that could appeal to the ‘better angels’ in the Hong Kong government and Beijing.” Still, he was cautious not to describe the protests and National Security Law as a simple case of cause and effect. “It’s hard to second-guess history,” he said.

Tong also criticized the framing of Hong Kong being caught between the West and China. Instead, he argued, the city is actually caught between two Chinese impulses: the desire to have a London-style economy inside China, and the desire to control.

“It’s those competing urges that determine the future of the city,” said Tong. “What foreign government policy does is not irrelevant, but it’s not the determining factor. The fate of Hong Kong is decided in Beijing and Hong Kong’s interaction with Beijing.”

Asked how the international community should interact with Hong Kong, Tong said the “U.S. and other countries should keep Hong Kong high on their list of priorities in dealing with China but not actively discourage business activity, because that’s the city’s lifeblood. If you make it harder for business to be done, that can have a lasting effect and you can’t always turn the dial back.”

Tong also argued that the international community should keep an open door to Hong Kong residents, but commented that “what foreign countries say about welcoming Hongkongers is less important than what Hongkongers actually decided to do. If a lot of people leave, that would be bad for China. If Hongkongers decided to move to the U.S., that would be great for the U.S.”

Will the former U.S. consul general have any role to play in policymaking? Asked whether he would accept an appointment in the Biden administration and what position he would be interested in, Tong demurred: “Yeah, I’m not going to negotiate that over the Internet.”

Watch the full interview:

US still supports Hong Kong, should open door to its people: Bolton

Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton told an FCC webinar that Hong Kong still enjoys broad support in the United States even as the city’s freedoms are being eroded, and that the Trump administration should follow the lead of other Western countries and open the doors to Hongkongers wishing to leave, writes Keith Richburg.

Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton appears in a July 15 FCC webinar. Former U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton appears in an FCC webinar on July 15, 2020.

Bolton spoke the day after President Donald Trump signed an executive order ending Hong Kong’s preferential trade treatment, and a sanctions bill aimed at individuals and banks, leading some analysts to suggest Washington and Beijing were headed for a “decoupling” of their relationship if not a new Cold War.

Bolton said decoupling is “not only possible, but is happening,” although he said the likelihood of a military conflict remained remote.

Calling the new China-imposed national security law “deplorable,” Bolton said: “It must be very discouraging for the people in Hong Kong. They fought so long. They thought they had another 25-plus years before this.”

“Don’t think that anybody’s giving up on you,” Bolton added: “I favour greatly immigration and I think what Britain, Canada and others have done in terms of potential political asylum for Hong Kong is something the United States should do, too, so I favour more immigration.”

Bolton, who left the Trump administration in September 2019, described its China policy as “incoherent” and “utterly without strategy”.

While Trump understood the Hong Kong protests of 2019 to be “significant in size,” he was “resolute in not wanting to do anything about it or to get involved in it”, fearing it might disrupt prospects for a trade deal.

The July 15 discussion between Bolton and FCC board of governors member Keith Richburg focused largely on U.S. relations, which have become increasingly strained over trade, territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the coronavirus pandemic.

Bolton also touched on Republican Party politics, saying he would not vote for either Trump or former vice-president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, in November, instead choosing to write in a conservative candidate.  Bolton said he wants to spend time after the election working to rebuild the Republican Party for the post-Trump era.

His recent book, The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, details his 453 days in the Trump Administration.

You can watch the video here

Maria Ressa and Caoilfhionn Gallagher express ‘shock’ at Hong Kong national security law

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and international human rights lawyer, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, have expressed shock at new national security legislation imposed on Hong Kong.

FCC First Vice President, Eric Wishart, interviews Maria Ressa and Caoilfhionn Gallagher on July 9. FCC First Vice President, Eric Wishart, interviews Maria Ressa and Caoilfhionn Gallagher on July 9.

Joining an FCC webinar on her fight against her recent conviction in the Philippines on cyber libel charges, Ressa was unequivocal when asked what was her reaction to the introduction of the law: “Shock”.

“When we were looking at the protests and this surge for press freedom… I understood why and we all were trying to understand, why is that not happening here? What’s the difference?

“What we’re seeing is really a geopolitical power shift and COVID-19 is helping that. But this is also where I feel Hong Kong is punching above its weight, what you guys do will impact the rest of us. And the Philippines is also punching above its weight in terms of a geopolitical power balance because President Duterte’s shift from the US to China and Russia. That is shifting the power balance in the South China Sea.”

Gallagher, a renowned lawyer who leads Ressa’s international defence team alongside Amal Clooney, expressed “shock and concern”. She was also deeply concerned by Carrie Lam’s July 7 comments in which the Hong Kong Chief Executive said she would give guarantees about press freedom to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club and journalists if they also give “a 100% guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation”.

“That is a promise that’s not worth the paper it’s not written on, if I can put it that way, when you then look at the law, which is breathtakingly broad. I read with some horror the description of the crime of subversion, undermining the power and authority of central government. So the crimes themselves are exceptionally broad.”

She added: “I’m very concerned by the provisions relating to regulation and surveillance. The part that someone suspected of breaking this breathtakingly broad law can be wiretapped and put under surveillance is of serious concern to journalists.”

On her legal fight against her June conviction and sentence of six years in prison, Ressa said she was “geared up for battle”.

The executive editor of news website Rappler.com was arrested last year over an allegedly defamatory article published in 2012 which linked a businessman to trafficking and drug smuggling. She denied charges of cyber libel, calling them “baseless”. The move came several months after a warrant was issued for her arrest on seven charges of tax fraud — a case she called “politically motivated”. Rappler has been a frequent critic of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.

On June 29, Ressa and co-defendant Reynaldo Santos Jr filed a motion for partial reconsideration, appealing to Manila Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa to reconsider her decision.

The FCC issued a statement deploring the conviction, saying it set a precedent and could have a “chilling effect on the press in the Philippines and across the region”.

Club president Jodi Schneider said: “Press freedom, already endangered in the Philippines, is now further undermined with this high-profile verdict.”

FCC Seeks Clarification on How National Security Law Affects Media

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club, Hong Kong on July 7 noted the statement by Chief Executive Carrie Lam at a press conference before the Executive Council meeting in which she answered questions about the new National Security Law.

In answer to a question regarding letters from the FCC seeking a guarantee that journalists would be allowed to continue reporting on any topic under the law, the Chief Executive replied: “If the Foreign Correspondents’ Club or all reporters in Hong Kong can give me a 100 percent guarantee that they will not commit any offences under this piece of national legislation, then I can do the same.” The Chief Executive added that the new law “clearly defined” the four types of actions that are now unlawful.

The FCC stresses that it respects the laws of the Special Administrative Region. At the same time, the FCC has written to the Chief Executive seeking clarity on specific areas where the new law is vague and where terms are undefined, particularly regarding the press and freedom of speech. So far, our detailed questions remain unanswered.

For example, the FCC in its letter asked whether any specific topics are off limits for news reporting. Also, will journalists face legal risks for quoting government critics or critical voices? Will journalists face legal risk for their social media posts? Can journalists be held liable for activities or events, like attending conferences, outside of China or Hong Kong where critical views might be expressed?

As we have not received a detailed response to our specific and pertinent questions, we would again urge the Chief Executive to provide a more complete and comprehensive response to the concerns raised in our letter. We further would like to reissue our open invitation for the Chief Executive to give a luncheon address at the FCC and answer questions in an open forum, as a way to address journalists’ concerns created by the vagaries of the new law.

To operate within the new law, the media needs to know precisely what is permissible. We look forward to receiving clarification from the Chief Executive, as well as having her come to the FCC to speak.

The national security law: Hong Kong journalists should be more serious about protecting sources and information

Journalists in Hong Kong must be a lot more serious about protecting their sources and data if they are to navigate the new national security law.

That was the opinion of three panelists discussing the impact of the new legislation on press freedom in the city. The event on July 7 came a week after China’s top legislature enacted the law which criminalises any act of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces.

Keith Richburg, director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre at the University of Hong Kong and a former Washington Post Beijing bureau chief, said he potentially foresees visa restrictions for journalists in Hong Kong who cross the so-called ‘red line’ in their reporting. However, he added that the details of the ‘red line’ have been deliberately vague to allow authorities to be flexible in how the legislation is interpreted.

The key for journalists, Richburg said, was “to figure out how to operate within the law and where the red lines are – coming as close as you can without crossing them”.

Joining Richburg on the panel was Sharron Fast, a legal expert from the Journalism and Media Studies Centre, and author Antony Dapiran. Fast observed that the law is difficult to interpret as two streams had been created – authority, and the Hong Kong judiciary. She highlighted some of the articles that could threaten press freedom in the city, such as Article 41, “one of the  many provisions that waters down the right of a fair trial”, she said. No media is permitted in the courts where the offence is deemed to be state secret, yet there is no definition of state secret.

Dapiran, also a corporate lawyer, raised the issue of protection of information and data in relation to the city’s police being given new powers to search without a warrant obtained through the courts. He advised journalists to be very vigilant about the way they store information and data.

You can watch the entire event here

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