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How Much Influence Can The U.S. Exert On What's Happening In Hong Kong?


After Sunday's protests, President Trump weighed in with his most forceful words so far about the situation in Hong Kong. Last night, after agreeing to a fresh round of trade talks with China, Trump issued this warning to Beijing.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I think I'd be very hard to deal if they do violence. I mean, if it's another Tiananmen Square, it's - I think it's a very hard thing to do if there is violence.

CHANG: But how much influence can the U.S. exert on what's happening in Hong Kong currently? To help us answer that question, we're joined now by Kurt Tong, who, until July, was the consul general to Hong Kong and Macao. Basically, he was the official envoy of the U.S. to Hong Kong. Welcome.

KURT TONG: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So how much leverage does the U.S. really have right now in shaping China's response to Hong Kong?

TONG: Well, the U.S. is a very major partner for Hong Kong's economy. We have some 1,400 U.S. businesses that have a major presence there. And so it's - we're important to Hong Kong. Hong Kong is also important to the United States and our ability to do business in the region and also have good relationships with lots of different aspects of China.

CHANG: Right, but as we just heard, Trump is now linking the ongoing trade talks with China with the situation in Hong Kong. Does that strike you as a good strategy for dealing with what's happening in Hong Kong?

TONG: Sure. Well, I think it's important for the United States to be, you know, consistent and quite principled in our approach to Hong Kong in really continuing to make the case that it's very important for Hong Kong to enjoy the high degree of autonomy that it was promised under the original arrangement at the handover under the one country, two systems framework.

And so, you know, we should be very consistent and continue to push for that autonomy and also for respect for the Hong Kong people's freedom of expression. So I think that it's good that the president is paying attention to the issue and stating that it's important to the United States.

CHANG: You mentioned that is important to - for the U.S. to voice respect for the autonomy of people in Hong Kong, their freedom of expression. But is there a risk that connecting what's happening in Hong Kong with the ongoing trade talks, is there a risk that it sounds kind of transactional?

TONG: Well, I certainly don't think that that's the right message to be sending. And I'm guessing that that's not what's intended. I think that, you know, politically, there is an impact of the situation in Hong Kong on how the United States is viewing its ability to cooperate with China writ large. But I don't think that there's a - that it's proper to have a specific linkage or quid pro quo with respect to Hong Kong because certainly, we wouldn't want to be trading Hong Kong away for a trade deal.

CHANG: You mentioned that you think it's important for the U.S. to stay on a consistent message with Hong Kong, but President Trump has sent mixed signals. Earlier this month, he said that what's happening in Hong Kong is, quote, "between Hong Kong and between China." He called the protests riots back then. Do you think the president's inconsistency on the messaging on Hong Kong has worked to weaken whatever influence the U.S. hopes to exert?

TONG: Well, there is a fine line to walk on these things? So certainly, the United States should never support violent protests. And I think that that needs to be made clear at the same time as supporting the general principles of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression.

CHANG: Kurt Tong is the former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and Macao.

Thank you very much for joining us.

TONG: Thank you. It was a real pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.