When it comes to penalising Hong Kong, the Donald Trump administration has been quick in announcing harsh measures, but short on details and confusing in application. The uncertainty and lack of clarity may be more damaging to the city than if a clear punitive policy is spelt out. An order from the American president that all of Hong Kong’s US-bound exports be marked “Made in China” after September 25 is the latest measure proving problematic. The announcement by the United States initially led to the belief that Hong Kong exports would now be treated the same as those from the rest of the country and be subject to the same tariffs under the trade war. But the new policy appears to have even caught US Customs and Border Protection by surprise, as it had to issue a clarification . Effectively, there is no change in labelling because Hong Kong goods could still use “HK” as a country of origin, even though the “Made in China” label needs to be applied as well. As it is, the new rule will not have a big impact and is more an angry gesture from Washington. Even so, it is still damaging and unfair. Brand building takes years, often decades, to develop. The new labelling rule will affect Hong Kong brands that have been well-known over decades as well as less established local companies that are trying to build up an international brand. What are the Hong Kong brands hit by ‘Made-in-China’ relabelling? The US is the second-largest destination for Hong Kong-made shipments, accounting for 7.7 per cent of the city’s total domestic exports last year. Of these, about 15 per cent were food products. Iconic Hong Kong brands such as Kee Wah Bakery, Maxim’s, Lee Kum Kee and Hong Kong Wing Wah have long had a presence in North America. Such firms are likely to be affected in the long run. The World Trade Organisation has strict rules on “country of origin” labelling. As a full member of the WTO, Hong Kong has a separate customs status from the rest of China. If Washington wants to see a rules-based global system, it should respect WTO regulations. Unfortunately, taking a trade dispute to the WTO means years of work and commitment of manpower and resources. Even if a favourable judgment is delivered, there is no guarantee that the US would respect it. So, it is understandable that Secretary for Commerce and Economic Development Edward Yau Tang-wah has expressed anger at the new US rule, yet is hesitant to take the complaint to the global trade body. Nor will countermeasures against US products make much of an impact other than to serve as an irritant to already frayed trade relations. The best course of action is to appeal to the senses of this or the next US administration that the new rule is unreasonable and should be dropped.