Hong Kong's diplomats

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

Clifford Hart says Hong Kong needs to adopt a pragmatic approach to achieving full democracy and refutes idea city has become 'ungovernable'

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

The top US representative in Hong Kong has called on the city to return to the "pragmatic and moderate mainstream" path and work towards the goal of achieving full democracy.

Clifford Hart, US consul general to Hong Kong and Macau, said the rights guaranteed to Hongkongers under the "one country, two systems" principle had remained strong since the handover and rejected the suggestion that the city had become ungovernable.

Hart was speaking to the South China Morning Post in a wide-ranging interview - the first of a series with Hong Kong-based diplomats.

The veteran diplomat said the 1½-year debate on Hong Kong's electoral reform had been "bruising" and had polarised the city.

"I think you hear a limited number of extreme voices at both ends of the political spectrum. I don't think that's Hong Kong's real personality," he said.

"I think Hong Kong tends towards pragmatic and moderate mainstream. So the most important thing for Hong Kong to do right now is to go back to those hallmark qualities that Hong Kong has.

"Put up your dialogue across the political spectrum. There are different views here and it's entirely healthy. You would expect there to be different views on how Hong Kong should be governed," he said. "The question is: how are the differences resolved in the interest of Hong Kong people?"

Watch: Inside the US Consul to Hong Kong's residence on The Peak

Hart, who assumed his Hong Kong post in July 2013, noted that the city was facing a lot of challenges, and the debate on universal suffrage was just one of them.

He dismissed speculation among certain quarters in the pro-establishment camp that the US consulate in Hong Kong had been recruiting more staff and was home to more than 1,000 employees.

"This is absurd, nonsense, downright silly. I mean it can't be taken seriously. Someone even suggested there are thousands of people in the consulate in Hong Kong. In fact the Hong Kong government knows exactly - exactly how many US diplomats are here because they provide our credentials.

"There are no more than 140. It's consistent with our work in a whole range of areas here," Hart said, citing strong ties between Hong Kong and his country in the areas of commerce and culture.

Hart acknowledged that Hong Kong enjoyed a range of guaranteed rights for its citizens. "These are important to its prosperity and brilliant success. I think we see right now Hong Kong is still quite strong," he said.

He also rejected the notion of the city becoming ungovernable. "Like I often tell my friends, I wish every ungovernable place were as well-governed as Hong Kong is," he said. "There is effective rule of law, an open society and transparent government."

Asked if the Hong Kong government's refusal to detain whistle-blower Edward Snowden in 2013 had any negative impact on the discussion on the waiver of US visa requirements for Hongkongers, the US consul general insisted the two issues were not connected.

"The underlying consideration is that the way US law is written, visa waiver, once approved, can only be done so for a sovereign state. Hong Kong is not a sovereign state," he said.

"I don't see that's going to be overcome any time soon ... I don't see that happening any time soon. I would urge [local people] to appreciate that there is no lack of respect for Hong Kong."

Hong Kong has been lobbying the US government for many years to be put on the visa waiver programme, which allows travellers visa-free access for tourism or business in the US for up to 90 days.

During his trip to the US in 2011, then chief executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen raised the issue with then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

Tsang had said at the time that the US government was positive about waiving visa requirements for Hongkongers.

Taiwanese residents were granted visa-free access in 2012 under a special arrangement.

Despite his appreciation of the strengths of Hong Kong, Hart called on the city to improve its copyright law, which he described as "seriously outdated".