Published: 23:53, May 29, 2024
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US politicians’ war against HK trade offices to escalate
By Tom Fowdy

Since the handover of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, it has been customary for the city to open economic and trade offices overseas. As one of the world’s most critically important financial and commercial centers, one which has economic self-governance, it is beneficial for countries to have a direct channel of engagement with the Hong Kong SAR. This has resulted in the creation of 14 such offices, including in the United States, the United Kingdom, continental Europe, and Asian countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand.

However, recently, some US politicians have launched an effort to try to get these offices closed. A bill has been proposed in the US Congress known as “HR 1103, the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office Certification Act”, which seeks to shut down the US-based Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices. This is closely following a narrative that alleges, without due evidence, that such organizations are being used for spying activities targeting overseas Hong Kong activists who have fled the city. US-funded nongovernment organizations and activists are also calling for such offices to be shut down.

This is politically motivated. First, the US has a clear agenda in undermining the importance of Hong Kong as a global financial and commercial center, as part of its broader campaign against China. Since the passage of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL) in June 2020, the Western mainstream media have pushed two critical narratives. The first claims that the NSL and other provisions actively undermine the freedoms and the rule of law in Hong Kong, ignoring the critical context in which it was implemented. The second, building on that, subsequently exaggerates the law’s provisions to claim that it makes Hong Kong an “unsafe place” to do business accordingly, and that random enterprises and individuals are somehow at risk of prosecution because of this.

Hong Kong will remain a global financial center, but it should be prepared to recognize its relations with the US are not going to improve unless it exists on their political preferences

These claims feed into a wider narrative present in the Western media which seeks to emphasize the “death of Hong Kong” amid the implementation of the NSL, and which enjoys pushing coverage of “people and businesses leaving” as a result. While the US has directly avoided sanctioning Hong Kong on financial terms because of the disruption such a move would bring to the global economy and to the US dollar, it nonetheless remains true that Washington has a vested strategic effort in politically and economically undermining the city. This is premised on the logic that Hong Kong should only be successful on the ideological and political terms which the US and other countries have set for it, thus ensuring it is estranged from and in opposition to the Chinese mainland and is an enclave of Western influence, which has been effectively put to an end by the NSL in the political sense.

Because of this, a congressional bill to close Hong Kong’s economic and trade offices is “low-hanging fruit” for US politicians. Because they are not truly “diplomatic” representations given that Hong Kong is legally part of China, it is easy for them to attack in a similar light to what they have done to organizations such as Confucius Institutes.

In doing so, they advance the argument that the city’s high degree of autonomy has been compromised and such overseas offices are now just a front for “Chinese influence” and “extraterritorial oppression”, arguing that direct engagement with the city is worthless, and thus can undermine and discredit Hong Kong’s status further as a critical financial center for American enterprises and businesses. In other words, it is an easy anti-China measure that amounts to a “soft decoupling” and can be implemented with little direct consequences for the US. This will nonetheless impact people-to-people and business ties with Hong Kong.

We should expect more negativity about these offices to appear in the Western media, and for the proposals to persist and probably gain momentum at the opportune moment. The Hong Kong SAR should prepare itself for this scenario by diversifying its international engagement accordingly. As a strategic alternative to the US, it should seek to open such offices in wealthy Arab countries that are friendly to China and have considerable capital, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. Hong Kong will remain a global financial center, but it should be prepared to recognize its relations with the US are not going to improve unless it exists on their political preferences.

The author is a British political and international-relations analyst.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.