The outgoing US consul general in Hong Kong was barred by the state department from giving a tough valedictory speech because of fears criticism of government actions could offend Beijing and derail a trade war truce agreed by Donald Trump and Xi Jinping at last month’s G20 meeting in Japan.
Kurt Tong, a career diplomat, left his post as US consul general to Hong Kong on Friday after less than three years in the role.
Mr Tong is also retiring from the state department and had told numerous people that he planned to give a “kick-ass” speech on July 2 that would lay out a realistic view of US-Hong Kong relations and Beijing’s determined erosion of freedoms in the former British colony.
The speech, originally scheduled to be delivered at Hong Kong’s Asia Society in the afternoon on July 2, was watered down and made “off the record” at the last minute on the direct orders of the state department, according to three people familiar with the matter.
Millions of people in Hong Kong have marched in opposition to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed alleged criminals in the city to be sent to mainland China to face charges.
The territory’s leader, Carrie Lam, has suspended the bill but the protests have continued, with demonstrators breaking into and vandalising Hong Kong’s legislature last week, posing a challenge to Mr Xi’s authority.
“Pompeo’s office called on Tuesday morning and ordered the speech be toned down and off the record,” said one of the people familiar with the matter, referring to the US secretary of state. The state department did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
“It was a pretty anodyne speech in the end, despite the strong billing to the contrary, so it was unclear why it needed to be off the record,” said one diplomat who attended. Mr Tong did not respond to a request for comment.
“It would seem that the Trump administration is hoping to create a better atmosphere for the trade truce with Beijing but I really hope they will continue to speak up in defence of Hong Kong,” said Anson Chan, a former head of the Hong Kong civil service.
Asked about Hong Kong last week after the G20, Mr Trump said: “I just hope it gets solved. I was with President Xi of China. We had a great talk, a great discussion. We’re talking about doing something. And we’ve talked about it briefly.”
The state department said that the US continued to urge the Hong Kong authorities “to ensure proper consultation” on its proposed legal amendments, and to “take into account the significant concerns clearly voiced by the Hong Kong people”.