Insights and Musings about Hong Kong, China and the United States: The Slippery Slope Becomes Ever More Dangerous. Where are the Wise and Courageous Leaders We Need?

By Richard Mueller

Article for the former American Consuls General of Hong Kong group (01 June 2020)

I was moved to share the thoughts below with members of one of the smallest of clubs, living American Consuls General to Hong Kong. There are twelve of us now. We crossed paths many times during our careers serving in the U.S. Foreign Service.

We count our blessings every day as we see so many people around us who have lost jobs and incomes, are hungry, fearful and often desperate.

This is a deeply sad and troubling time as we witness history in the making. I wanted to share just a few memories and observations.

I confess to feeling a blue funk coming on. I am determined to resist and to remain hopeful. Hong Kong and China are very much on my mind as are our COVID-19 crisis and our country’s deep racial and political divisions. I’m glad there was some good news in the skies recently when the historic SpaceX launch was a success.

Having served as Consuls General in Hong Kong, we share similar histories and perspectives about the city and China. Even though we were there at different times and each had our own unique experiences, over the decades we all worked to build durable bridges across the Pacific to Hong Kong and China that would transport people, ideas, and cargo. The goal was building relationships and learning from each other to serve the interests of all, despite large historical, cultural, and political differences.  

Those bridges now are crumbling. The potholes and tolls and delays for security checks and intentional de-construction along the way are multiplying. How many people from either side of the Pacific will be willing to attempt the crossing in the coming months? What are the dangers if two-way traffic further slows?   

Hong Kong for years has been my wife Claire and my favorite city, for many reasons. Importantly, it has thrived under different administrations and conditions and found ways to grow and serve as a beacon of hope and promise both to refugees and entrepreneurs around the world. 

Hong Kong’s most recent challenge, called “one country, two systems” with a “high degree of autonomy,” held some promise that Hong Kong, with determination and luck, combined with restraint from its new sovereign, the People’s Republic of China, would maintain enough autonomy in its laws, freedoms and traditions to continue to thrive as an open society. 

Deng Xiaoping, even as a hardened communist leader, recognized that Hong Kong’s continued success would serve China’s interests. He didn’t care what color the cat was or that some flies would come in when China’s windows were opened. But now in 2020 Hong Kong’s luck and Beijing’s restraint are running out. Much stricter control of Hong Kong’s people and government have increasingly become the order of the day for Beijing.  

The National People’s Congress in Beijing just imposed on Hong Kong a very tough, potentially draconian, law outlawing a wide range of citizens’ actions that could be interpreted as undermining national security or unity of the country, criticism of the Communist Party and China’s leadership, or speaking out or publicly demonstrating against the government. Beijing clearly is embarrassed and frustrated that its citizens in Hong Kong are not sufficiently obedient. Such a law should have been debated and passed in Hong Kong, so its imposition by Beijing represents a fundamental undermining of Hong Kong’s promised high degree of autonomy.

Secretary Pompeo quickly announced, without any public or Congressional consultation, that the US no longer considers Hong Kong sufficiently autonomous from China. The administration will announce actions to be taken to revoke special treatment to Hong Kong and act against selected PRC people and entities.

Of course, over many years, Beijing has maintained eyes and ears in Hong Kong. Not many Chief Executive decisions were made without informing or seeking approval from Beijing. But now the motherland’s actions are creating a new and much more threatening reality.

Over the years we often said that Hong Kong’s future ultimately depended on China’s future. If China continued to open up and lifted the dead hands of bureaucracy and politics, then Hong Kong’s future would be brighter. 

We are now at the point where the future of Hong Kong is less likely to be the future we had hoped and worked for. The very well off and “pro-establishment” people have made a peace with the autocratic regime across the border and have bet they will find a way to be OK. They will cultivate influence and establish residences abroad. 

My heart goes out to the younger people of Hong Kong who are now seeing what their future is likely to be, one very different from their hopes and dreams and freedoms they cherish and want to protect by running for office and marching in the streets. 

That deeply saddens and angers me. How can 1.4 billion people feel so threatened by 7.5 million? The Communist Party holds virtually all the power. Honey is known to be more attractive than vinegar. But of course, we have known all along that despite glimmers of more openness over the years China’s Communist Party seeks power domestically and internationally, striking those who oppose it. Xi Jinping’s goal certainly is to be seen as the 21st century “emperor” who brought together the entire country. Taiwan, take note.

I hope the United States will invite those Hong Kong young people to move to our country and encourage them to use their talents and creativity to help build the future America. Seeking political asylum is likely to be the route.

One more thought. As with Hong Kong, US-China relations for the foreseeable future will not be what we had hoped and worked for. I started a year of Vietnamese language training in1968, followed by two assignments there, in the hope of building, not destroying. I began two years of Chinese language training in 1974, followed by numerous China-related and other assignments, also in the hope of building, particularly bridges between two very different societies and cultures. We see what’s happening now to those bridges. 

China deserves some hard criticism. It needs to consider seriously how, on its present course of emphasizing control and repression, it will be able to deal successfully with its own many challenges and for how long it can interact in these ways with the rest of a very diverse world. Unfortunately for us, Xi must love the new talking point he has as we experience our current problems: The Chinese and Hong Kong people prize stability and order; the Communist Party provides that order plus incomes, coronavirus protection and jobs; the United States claims the virtues of freedom for people to do what they want and instead provides chaos, out-of-control coronavirus infection, unemployment, and poverty.  

The Trump administration for its part needs to decide on strategic goals with respect to China. What kind of relationship do we want to build toward in 5-10-20 years? And then steadily, with smart, hard-nosed statecraft and diplomacy, we must work toward those goals with all the leverage and incentives we have. We need to stop the uncoordinated and often ad hoc tactical actions that do not serve a strategic result other than create chaos and danger.

We will not become like China. China will not become like us. But we can and must find some stability and cooperation to live together without going to war or trying to undermine and tear each other down on this very small planet facing so many other existential challenges. Read again Carl Sagan’s sage words about our Pale Blue Dot. 

Is it too much to demand that both governments engage in serious cooperation to find a coronavirus cure and vaccine?

Where are the wise and courageous leaders on both sides of the Pacific who are willing to arrest our slide down the slippery and dangerous slope toward potentially catastrophic confrontation?

The great wheel of history eventually will turn again. There can be a better world in our future. I pray every day that all our children and grandchildren will be able to build and enjoy it. 

Just a few musings on a warm and sunny spring day while enjoying vistas of the Rocky Mountains outside our doors. 

Richard W. Mueller
Golden, Colorado
June 1, 2020

Richard W. Mueller was a career Senior Foreign Service Officer.for 32 years who specialized in Asian and Chinese affairs.  He was American Consul General to Hong Kong, 1993-96, in the critical years leading up to Hong Kong’s reversion to China in 1997.  He served in numerous assignments in China and Southeast Asia and also worked for Secretaries Kissinger, Shultz, and Baker.  After Foreign Service retirement he served for fifteen years as head of school of Northfield Mount Hermon School in Massachusetts, Hong Kong International School, and Shanghai American School.

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