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Kurt Tong, Former U.S. Consul General To Hong Kong, Discusses City's Local Elections


2.9 million voters spoke and delivered a clear message to Beijing. The people of Hong Kong want democracy. Pro-democracy candidates swept Hong Kong's district council elections over the weekend. They won more than 80% of contested seats and unseated many pro-Beijing incumbents. At a lunchtime rally today, a crowd broke out in a chant that has become a rallying cry of the pro-democracy camp.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in foreign language).

KELLY: Five demands, not one less, they are chanting. Among those demands, protesters are calling on Hong Kong's government to launch an independent investigation into the use of force by police. Well, for more on where things may go from here and what role, if any, the U.S. has, we are joined by Kurt Tong. He was the top American diplomat in Hong Kong until June of this year. And he's in our studio now. Kurt Tong, welcome.

KURT TONG: A real pleasure to be here.

KELLY: Is there any way to read this election huge turnout and stunning result other than a stinging rebuke to Beijing?

TONG: I think that's right. The - typically this - these elections have been a series of 400 or so local elections, small town elections on questions about bus routes and where to put the bike rack and that kind of thing. This time...

KELLY: Not stuff that we would be sitting around talking around in Washington. Yeah.

TONG: Certainly not. But this time, the Hong Kong public very clearly decided to use this election as a referendum on citywide policy and particularly to express their concern about the erosion of the one country, two systems framework and their desire for a high degree of autonomy from China.

KELLY: What kind of response might we see from Beijing?

TONG: I think that Beijing will take a moment to think about this. I'm hopeful that Beijing might realize that actually it's in their best interest to give Hong Kong the space that it wants, both political space, cultural space and a different form of governance going forward for many years to come and that that will actually work the best for Hong Kong but also work the best for China.

KELLY: You don't see this as just a fundamentally unsustainable system, the one country, two systems, with a built-in deadline, of course, of 2047.

TONG: I think the real answer to that question depends on the future direction of China. And that's a big question mark at this stage.

KELLY: Let me turn you to the U.S. role. Congress, as you know, nearly unanimously approved a bill in support of the pro-democracy protesters. This bill would authorize the U.S. to impose sanctions against Chinese officials in the event of a harsh crackdown on protesters. President Trump was asked about it just on Friday. He was doing an interview with "Fox & Friends." And here was his response when he was asked whether he would sign it.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Look. We have to stand with Hong Kong, but I'm also standing with President Xi. He's a friend of mine. He's an incredible guy. And we have to stand. But I'd like to see them work it out.

KELLY: So we have to stand with Hong Kong, but we also have to stand with the president of China. And then he went on and talked about the trade deal, which hangs in the balance between the U.S. and China. What kind of message does that send?

TONG: Well, honestly, I'm not sure what exactly what the president meant. But I personally don't think that linking the trade talks to issues related to Hong Kong is useful for anyone involved. I think it confuses China, but also it's just not a natural linkage. And the Hong Kong matters are in their own space. The trade negotiation is economics - for economics negotiation - a very difficult one, but that's clearly the way that it operates. And so I'm not sure that that linkage makes much sense.

KELLY: Do you think it would be possible for the U.S. administration to take a stronger stand in support of pro-democracy protesters, even as it's trying to extract concessions from Beijing when it comes to trade?

TONG: Sure. Why not? I mean, I'm not sure that the stance needs to be any stronger than it has been towards Hong Kong issues. What Secretary Pompeo said last week seemed entirely appropriate. I think that the U.S...

KELLY: He condemned violence by any sides, that violence by any side is unacceptable.

TONG: Violence by any side is unacceptable and that China needs to adhere to its promises under the joint declaration with Great Britain. I think that we can all walk and chew gum at the same time, both the United States and China, have our conversation about what we think is the right direction for Hong Kong and do a trade negotiation at the same time.

KELLY: Is there anything in your view the U.S. should be doing, any tool it should be applying to the situation in Hong Kong that it hasn't?

TONG: I think that the U.S. should really double down on engaging Hong Kong on its own terms, treating it as much as possible like an autonomous entity, which it is in many, many respects, and really reinforcing that notion that Hong Kong is a separate place with its own rules through action as well as through word.

KELLY: Kurt Tong - he is the former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong and Macao. He is now a partner at The Asia Group consulting firm here in Washington.

Thank you.

TONG: Great. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.