WASHINGTON - Hong Kong's autonomy under the "one country, two systems" framework may irritate the Chinese government but has been key to the city's success, America's recently retired top diplomat to Hong Kong said on Tuesday (July 30).
Beijing would therefore be well-advised to "dial it back a little in terms of how it approaches Hong Kong affairs", said former United States Consul General Kurt Tong, who retired from the foreign service three weeks ago after less than three years in the post.
"Give it the space that it stated it would in the Sino-British Joint Declaration or in the Basic Law, and re-establish a little more distance between the rest of China and Hong Kong," said Mr Tong at a talk in Washington organised by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, where he discussed Hong Kong's relationship with China and the Hong Kong protests, now into their ninth week.
"Respecting Hong Kong's autonomy will then allow Hong Kong to operate in the way that it always has, which has redounded to the benefit of China," he said.
"The mainland should be confident in Hong Kong and its role in China. The track record is one of making an enormous contribution to China's economic development and its bridging to the rest of the international community."
Mr Tong acknowledged that his advice, coming from a foreigner, would not be well-received by China. Beijing frequently responds to comments on Hong Kong from American politicians and diplomats by telling them not to interfere in its internal affairs, and has done so repeatedly since protesters first took to the streets in early June to oppose a now-suspended extradition Bill.
The Bill would have allowed criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be sent to China to face trial. Protesters said that the legal system in China is not transparent and fear that extradited suspects would not get a fair trial there.
Tuesday's talk was rescheduled from earlier this month, which Mr Tong said was due to "getting clearances and bureaucratic procedures" in the State Department.
The Financial Times reported that another speech of his on July 2 had been watered down to avoid angering Beijing and derailing US-China trade talks which are taking place this week in Shanghai.
Mr Tong, who is now with The Asia Group advisory firm, said that he and other Americans should neither downplay their concerns nor exaggerate them.
"I do get worried that sometimes people in the US choose to criticise the situation in Hong Kong disproportionately because it's China, and we feel like we're in a competitive relationship with China. And therefore if we can score a point at Hong Kong then mark one for our team," he said.
"But that's not very useful for the city or the long-term relationships that can be built using Hong Kong."
He said that Hong Kong's positive business environment was due to its respect for the rule of law, independent judiciary and reputation for good governance.
The most important factor enabling all of that to continue, despite Britain's return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, was the autonomy guaranteed to Hong Kong under the "one country, two systems" framework, he said.
But people tend to forget about this core source of Hong Kong's competitiveness and relevance, he added.
"There's a tendency, which is particularly true under recent leadership in Beijing, to think that Hong Kong's success is a reflection of China's success," he said.
"But that's not the reason why it's successful. It's successful because it's different from China. But it's still part of China."
Elaborating later during a question-and-answer session, he said: "It's irritating to the mainland and uncomfortable that Hong Kong is different even though it's part of China."
But, he said: "The parts of Hong Kong that China sincerely continues to value are part and parcel of the parts of Hong Kong that they find irritating. That's where the tolerance comes in, and having a philosophy that allows Hong Kong to be Hong Kong."
Mr Tong also said there was a tendency to underestimate the anxiety stemming from the "one country, two systems" framework, and a situation made worse by the severe economic inequality in Hong Kong.
"That anxiety could over time start to threaten Hong Kong's success. I'm still very optimistic because the key ingredients for Hong Kong's success are still there.
"But that fundamental concern that people have between the contradictions between the two political systems in Hong Kong and the mainland is something that needs to be reflected upon and acted in appropriate ways," he said.