US diplomat’s comments on Hong Kong politics ‘upset’ Beijing, says report

Report says Hart's pan-democrat poll remark and meetings with politicians led to warning

PUBLISHED : Friday, 30 August, 2013, 7:38pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 August, 2013, 3:26pm

The new US consul general in Hong Kong was warned to steer clear of the city's political debate because Beijing was "extremely upset" by his remark that pan-democrats should be allowed to run for chief executive, a state-run newspaper says.

The Global Times ran a commentary on its website yesterday quoting "a source close to the central government" as saying Beijing was also upset about Clifford Hart's frequent meetings with local politicians.

A spokesman for the US consulate declined to confirm yesterday whether Hart had ever made a suggestion about pan-democrats' participation in the 2017 election.

But he said Hart's meetings with government, business and political leaders "are the standard practice of diplomatic representatives of nations around the world … and they are important for building relationships, exchanging views, and opening lines of communication".

The commentary came three days after Song Zhe, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' commissioner in Hong Kong, met Hart and told him that US personnel in Hong Kong should "refuse to do anything that would hurt Hong Kong's prosperity and stability and the overall interests of China-US relations".

This was seen as a warning after New People's Party chairwoman Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee said Hart had told her "he hoped that people from different backgrounds can run for the election in 2017" - echoing pan-democrats' call for a fair nomination system.

Veteran China watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu agreed that Hart's veiled support for the pan-democrats could have touched nerves in Beijing.

He said Beijing might think that by showing its authority, it could "scare [Hart] off".

"But what the US has been doing is really common in international relations - to stand on moral high ground and call for democracy as a universal value," he said. "So instead of hitting back, it would be wiser for Beijing to engage with the moderate democrats, and make friends with them instead of pushing them towards the US."

Hart has met two of the three biggest pan-democratic parties - the Democratic Party and Labour Party. The pro-establishment Liberal Party and Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong are expected to meet him next month.

Lau said Beijing might also be concerned about the US consulate's high-profile Facebook page.

Last Saturday, Hart's office uploaded a picture of Martin Luther King with the question "what is your dream?" The post drew more than 650 comments in four days, including 450 that said "independence of Hong Kong".