Amid escalating US-China trade war, Hong Kong must figure out how to protect its unique interests

Maintaining city’s special status and sparing it from possible collateral damage form important mission for commerce minister during Washington visit

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 12:59pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 September, 2018, 8:57pm

Black humour in politics is not unusual, and amid the escalating US-China trade war, Hong Kong can be caught up in some of the irony.

With all the flip-flopping from Washington – inviting Beijing for a new round of high-level talks this week on the one hand, and US President Donald Trump’s deciding to impose US$200 billion worth of new tariffs on Chinese products on the other – it was only a natural course of action for Beijing to review its initial plan of sending President Xi Jinping’s trusted economic aide, Liu He, to meet his American counterpart.

With Liu’s trip now cancelled, Hong Kong’s flagship carrier, Cathay Pacific, has launched its inaugural direct flight to Washington, and with a special delegation comprising members of major local chambers of commerce on board. They include representatives of the American Chamber of Commerce, along with Hong Kong’s top official in charge of trade, Edward Yau Tang-wah.

The secretary for commerce and economic development knows only too well this is by no means an opportunity for him to join the first group of dignitaries for a pleasant trip using the city’s own carrier, nor does he need to spend more than 15 hours in the air to show support for this new, direct route which the government expects will bring economic benefits.

He is on a much more important mission: to convince the US to maintain Hong Kong’s special status and thus spare the city from possible collateral damage stemming from the trade war.

His agenda includes talks to ensure the US keeps its promise to deal with post-1997 Hong Kong separately from mainland China in terms of trade and economic matters, in accordance with a special act the US Congress passed back in 1992.

Why Trump’s trade war is a blessing in disguise for Chinese leaders

This seeming non-issue has all of a sudden become something Yau, and even Beijing, cannot ignore due to calls for independence in the city. Beijing has a policy of zero tolerance regarding independence advocacy, despite most Hongkongers viewing separatist talk as a fantasy that will go nowhere.

It was against such a backdrop that Yau and the group started their journey this weekend, and their arrival in Washington coincides with the latest round of tariffs taking effect: a further 10 per cent, followed by an increase to 25 on January 1, 2019. What bad timing.

However, what is good or bad can be relative sometimes, and this is where the black humour comes in.

Earlier, when local independence advocate Andy Chan Ho-tin wrote to the US State Department urging Washington to abolish its special treatment of the city under the Hong Kong Policy Act, claiming democracy here was under threat, Yau’s office immediately rebutted the accusation. And the top American envoy to the city, Kurt Tong, dismissed any foreseeable policy change by hailing Hong Kong-US relations as “very good”.

Tong’s remarks were no doubt encouraging to Yau in particular, and Chan may not have realised he had unwittingly done the commerce chief a favour by triggering the US diplomat’s open support for Hong Kong.

However, for Yau and the delegation, the real test is to come in the following days. It is not as simple as issuing a statement to condemn Chan, but to explain in a convincing way the complexity of Hong Kong’s current political and economic scenario, thereby highlighting the city’s unique differences from the mainland.

In short, it’s all about how to protect Hong Kong’s interests to the maximum without impacting the country’s strategy as a whole, while Beijing is contemplating its next step.