US calls off speech by former Hong Kong envoy amid fear of derailing trade talks

Owen Churchill

A scheduled speech at a Washington think tank by the former United States general consul to Hong Kong has been postponed on the orders of the US State Department, according to a person with direct knowledge of the matter.

Kurt Tong, who retired as Washington's envoy to Hong Kong and Macau last week, was to deliver a keynote speech on Wednesday at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) to address Hong Kong's relationship with China and comment on the direction of US economic policy in the region.

The State Department's directive follows a string of similar moves by the US administration to dampen or put off public remarks by officials that could anger the Chinese government and derail US-China trade talks that restarted in late June.

During his three-year tenure, Tong on numerous occasions publicly warned that Hong Kong's autonomy was increasingly at risk of being eroded under the "one country, two systems" framework, a position that put him at loggerheads with Beijing.

More recently, he had expressed his concern about the impact on Hong Kong's "political fabric" of proposed amendments to the city's extradition laws, which would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to mainland China.

Weeks of protest over the proposed changes have rocked Hong Kong and forced the city's government to back down on its plan, with chief executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor this week announcing the bill was "dead".

The remarks by Lam, who stopped short of declaring the amendment officially withdrawn, have not assuaged the concerns of her detractors in Hong Kong, who insist she resign and who view the saga as a sign of Beijing's broader encroachment on the city's autonomy.

The State Department's decision to eliminate any chance of Tong uttering potentially inflammatory remarks on the Hong Kong-Beijing relationship came following a similar gag order it issued during his last week in office.

Citing several people familiar with the matter, the Financial Times reported that the department vetoed a strongly worded speech scheduled for July 2, a decision arising from a concern that the castigation of Beijing could put the ongoing trade talks into jeopardy.

Hong Kong media boss and democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai meets US Vice-President Mike Pence in the White House on Monday. The parley on Hong Kong's extradition bill and the wider issue of the city's autonomy has irked Beijing. Photo: Mark Simon alt=Hong Kong media boss and democracy campaigner Jimmy Lai meets US Vice-President Mike Pence in the White House on Monday. The parley on Hong Kong's extradition bill and the wider issue of the city's autonomy has irked Beijing. Photo: Mark Simon

In June, the White House indefinitely delayed a talk by Vice-President Mike Pence in which he was expected to slam China over its human rights record and infringement on religious freedoms, citing "progress in conversations between President Trump and [Chinese] President Xi [Jinping]".

In the weeks since, however, Pence has met with Hong Kong tycoon Jimmy Lai to discuss the extradition bill and the wider status of the city's autonomy, much to Beijing's ire.

The Chinese government routinely condemns such meetings as efforts by foreign governments to interfere in China's "internal affairs".

Separately, the State Department has also expressed "grave concern" over the extradition bill issue, while Trump said he raised the subject with Xi during their June 29 meeting in Osaka, Japan.

Kurt Tong with Hong Kong's chief secretary for administration, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, at a ceremony marking the 243rd anniversary of US independence on July 4 at the Ocean Park Marriott Hotel in Aberdeen. Photo: Tory Ho alt=Kurt Tong with Hong Kong's chief secretary for administration, Matthew Cheung Kin-chung, at a ceremony marking the 243rd anniversary of US independence on July 4 at the Ocean Park Marriott Hotel in Aberdeen. Photo: Tory Ho

The US leader had previously declined to weigh in on the matter, expressing hope that Beijing and Hong Kong would be able to "work it out".

The State Department did not respond to a request for an explanation of its decision to postpone Tong's Wednesday speech.

Tong, who is entering the private sector after almost 30 years as a diplomat, will be succeeded in Hong Kong by Hanscom Smith, a career foreign service official who most recently served in the State Department's office for Chinese and Mongolian affairs.

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2019 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.