A controversial Hong Kong politician wants the United States to sanction his city as part of its ongoing trade war with China in hopes of somehow achieving his dream of independence and democracy.
Analysts and investors largely agree that sounds far-fetched — even accounting for U.S. President Donald Trump’s willingness to break longstanding norms — though some wouldn’t completely rule it out.
Andy Chan Ho-tin, a member of the Hong Kong National Party, says China poses an increasing existential threat to local rights and freedoms since British colonial rule ended in 1997. He has become a local lightning rod, criticized by many for advocating independence but also seen as a symbol of free speech after Chinese and Hong Kong officials called for a public address of his this week to be canceled.
In that address, he called for the U.S. to review legislation that governs its relations with the territory, condemn Hong Kong government officials he claimed suppress human rights and potentially target mainland Chinese financial assets in Hong Kong.
“Think about how much more clout the U.S. would have on China if the current trade war extends to Hong Kong,” he said Tuesday in the closely watched speech to the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club, adding that such a move could strike a real “economic blow” to Beijing.
“Many of the Chinese already store their actual capital here,” Chan said.
The politician’s call for Hong Kong to break away does not appear to be widely shared and police have called for the party to be banned on national security grounds. Both Chinese and Hong Kong authorities say independence is out of the question.
And while many analysts have expressed concern over the threat to Hong Kong posed in recent years by tighter Chinese control, experts deemed the city unlikely to play a role in the trade war.
“I think the Hong Kong issue is not something that is right up there on the Trump hit list,” Tim Summers, a lecturer in Chinese studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told CNBC.
“The U.S. government’s basic strategic interests are in Hong Kong continuing to be treated separate from the rest of China for all sorts of economic, financial, business reasons,” he said. “And that’s why these policy instruments are in place.”
The United States-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 allows Hong Kong to be treated as a “non-sovereign entity distinct from China for the purposes of U.S. domestic law,” according to a State Department report to Congress in May, which noted the U.S. “recognizes Hong Kong as a separate customs territory.”
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, an associate professor in the political science department at the University of Notre Dame, said that “no one will want to predict what Donald Trump is likely or unlikely to do,” but she stressed it is important to understand the context of Chan’s view on the U.S.
Hui said it reflects opinion among some in Hong Kong she described as “localists” who think more U.S. pressure on China could stem growing Chinese influence, which they see as problematic even if they don’t seek independence.
“The only country on earth that has any leverage on China is the U.S.,” she said, describing their thinking.
The U.S. does express concern about political developments in Hong Kong, such as in the May report, which said Chinese central government actions were sometimes “inconsistent” with its promises to uphold Hong Kong’s autonomy.
But that State Department report described trade relations with Hong Kong as “very strong,” saying that the biggest U.S. bilateral trade surplus in the world, at $34.5 billion, is with the territory.
David Roche, president and global strategist at research firm Independent Strategy, said any hope that Hong Kong will become a pawn in the broader U.S.-China conflict shows a lack of understanding about how such geopolitical conflicts play out.
“His idea that the U.S. is going to some way ride into the equation and take measures which in some way help Hong Kong independence, that is just not on — even from Trump,” Roche said.
Richard Harris, chief executive at investment manager Port Shelter, echoed the sentiment that the chances are low, but said it’s not inconceivable Hong Kong could, rhetorically at least, end up in Trump’s cross hairs the more protracted the conflict becomes.
“For Hong Kong, especially, I think it would be very damaging,” Harris said. “I mean, this is a city that depends on trade, so any impact on trade is going to be negative.”