Hong Kong's diplomats

How Hong Kong got under the skin of United States Consul General Clifford Hart

US Consul General Clifford Hart reflects on his experiences of Hong Kong since 1984

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 2:29am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 August, 2015, 12:00pm

Clifford Hart has been America's top man in Hong Kong since 2013 and is perhaps the best-known and most-talked-about diplomat in this otherwise locally-focused society.

What is less well known about the influential envoy, however, is that the same city was where he stopped over on his trans-Pacific journey to his first ever diplomatic posting in Guangzhou nearly three decades earlier.

"When I came through here in 1984, Hong Kong got under my skin almost immediately," Hart told the South China Morning Post in an interview conducted at his residence on The Peak. "I have had a deep abiding interest in Hong Kong ever since then."

Watch: Looking out over Victoria Harbor to the north and the South China Sea on the other side, US Consul Clifford Hart shows SCMP inside his home on The peak

While he had been assigned all over the world, from Baghdad to Beijing, from the Soviet Union to his home country, "I would still be reading about Hong Kong and following it closely", said Hart, whose most recent appointment was as US special envoy to the six-party talks on North Korea's nuclear programme.

Asia has always been in the family blood. Hart's grandfather was a US navy officer and a slave labourer in a Hitachi prisoner-of-war camp in Tokyo during the second world war.

Hart will be bidding farewell to Asia next year, but he shows no eagerness for a retiree's life yet.

"There is always the possibility that I'll stay in the diplomatic service - the State Department can always surprise you.

"It will be 33 years next year when I leave here. That's a good time. This is a very satisfying and I think reasonably successful career," he said.

Or, he might move to the private sector, "whether it's based in Asia or back in the United States - I'm really quite flexible".

READ MORE: Return to 'moderate mainstream' path to achieve democracy, US consul urges Hong Kong

One of the issues that he hopes to focus on before he leaves is to follow up on the State Department's report on human trafficking, which gives Hong Kong a damning tier 2 ranking, putting it on par with Ethiopia and the like and suggesting the government was not being responsive enough.

"Hong Kong would be unusual if it didn't have a problem, not if it did," he said in response, again calling on the government to devise an anti-trafficking law.

But on other areas the government should focus on, he shied away from specifics, saying: "I am a US diplomat and I am not an economist or long-term economic strategist."

He is also a cook, though, one that specialises in Sichuan cuisine.

"I have very few frustrations here in Hong Kong, but one of them is I don't cook [because] I have a professional chef," he said. "The kitchen in this residence is really his field of battle."

The battlefield could as well be online. Hart is most likely the highest-profile diplomat by posting selfies on the consulate's social media page wherever he goes.

"I never came with a strategy to use Facebook," he said, commenting on posts that earn him such fancy reactions as "Welcome, the 29th Governor of Hong Kong".

But apart from the "powerful" modern technology through which he is "pretty often" recognised by passers-by, Hart equally appreciates the traditional Chinese culture here.

To Hart, Chinese culture is preserved better here than on the mainland. "It's recovering on the mainland … but it will take a long time to recover, whereas [in] Hong Kong it's just intact," he said.

Asked what he would miss most in Hong Kong following his departure, the unprepared Hart giggled. "Oh my gosh. Again, very hard to answer that in one single thing."

Finally, he did find one thing he would miss.

"My greatest pleasure is walking through neighbourhoods [and] watching people live their lives. I find the southern Chinese urban life really interesting," he said. "You have people who are indisputably part of the 5,000-year tradition of Chinese culture living in a first-world place with rule of law and transparent government. I will miss that daily exposure to China through Hong Kong when I leave here.

"It is the one true first-world part of the People's Republic of China."


The Diplomats: Part 2 - The Philippine consul general, this Friday.