As the formal handover of Hong Kong to China approached, many grew concerned about Beijing’s intentions. Tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens emigrated in the late 1980s and early 1990s for places like the UK and Vancouver while several came to the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong with claims of American citizenship. The event of the formal handover, which took place on June 30-July 1, 1997, was a glitzy affair. The Prince of Wales read a farewell speech on behalf of Queen Elizabeth II; newly elected Prime Minister Tony Blair, Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, and the departing Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten also attended.
Richard Boucher served as Consul General in Hong Kong from 1996-1999. He describes the crush of Congressional delegations and the fear mongering in the American media, which he found especially frustrating when he learned that no one read his cables. He talks about the handover event at the newly built Hong Kong Convention, also known as “the Metal Cockroach,” the efforts the consulate made to promote democracy and the rule of law and help Hong Kong citizens with claims of U.S. citizenship, as well as the visit of the USS Blue Ridge, which sent a strong signal that “Hong Kong abides.” He was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in 2015.
“We had scores of Congressional visitors and we tried to show every one of them that Hong Kong was a unique place, whether it was the rule of law or the transshipment of chicken feet”
BOUCHER: The year leading up to the handover was pretty amazing. We had 130 Congressional visitors. Some of those were duplicates or, as we say: they came back for a second fitting. Congressman Jim Kolbe brought out a Congressional delegation of 23 or 24, many of whom were part of this infamous crowd of people in the Congress who didn’t have passports when they were elected. He wanted to show them the reality of trade and the reality of Hong Kong.
We and the American Chamber [of Commerce] would do lots of briefings for Congressional visitors. They’d usually come to Hong Kong after China so they had seen as much and visited as many bureaucracies and they tended to come on weekends so we tried to keep it light. We’d do Sunday brunches with them and briefings around town.
I remember one exchange with a Congresswoman from Georgia: I was explaining chickens to her because we had had an infamous chicken hijacking in Hong Kong harbor. There were two refrigerated containers of chicken feet from the United States that were hijacked from the barges that they used in Hong Kong harbor. In this port, they would frequently unload containers onto the barge and then take them into the docks. Some gangsters hijacked two containers of refrigerated chicken feet! The chicken feet gang towed them up into the Pearl River delta. They pulled into this little town, unloaded the feet and dumped the containers on the Chinese side in the marshes. The heist showed you how valuable the chicken feet were. This was real money to loot: two containers full of frozen chicken feet.
Anyway, with the Congresswoman we were explaining that even chickens were part of the global value chain. American chickens get cut up. The chicken feet would come to China. The breasts would get sold in the United States. The dark meat would get sold to Russia and Eastern Europe where people prefer that. And then various other parts went into fertilizers and chicken nuggets and god knows what else. And every piece of the chicken got used.
The Congresswoman from Georgia listened to this and said “Hold it, you mean my chickens get their feet cut off and they come here?”
I said, “Yes ma’am. Chickens from your district, parts end up here, parts in Russia.” Oh my gosh. That was sort of one of those moments when you realize people in the Congress had to see these things for themselves. A lot of people belittle and criticize Congressional travel but I think it’s wonderful. If they’re going to vote on foreign issues, particularly Hong Kong autonomy, they’ve got to see it.
So, in the lead up to the handover we had scores of Congressional visitors and we tried to show every one of them that Hong Kong was a unique place, whether it was the rule of law or the transshipment of chicken feet. And we tried to show them why their Hong Kong relations act was important to maintain an autonomous Hong Kong that remained true to its traditions and its important role in the world and the Chinese economies.
Senator Strom Thurmond, almost at the age of 100, came to Hong Kong. We were in the bus coming in from the airport. He’s looking around at all the tall buildings and the lights and the harbor and the glitter and the traffic. He finally turns to me and said, “This doesn’t look like any part of China I’ve ever seen.”
I said, “Sir, that’s exactly why you have to remember it. That’s exactly why we have to do something different in Hong Kong than we do in the rest of China.” And that’s how we explained the Hong Kong Relations Act that they had passed in 1992, and how we got judgment that we were going to maintain the autonomous status of the Consulate General in Hong Kong and treat Hong Kong differently than the rest of China.
This was 1996. I think it was somewhere between 1990 and 1992 that the American business community had became bigger than the British community. There were more Americans based in Hong Kong than there were Brits by the time of the handover. That was very important. Hong Kong was a major business hub for U.S. business and travel for the region. The American Chamber was a very important organization around town.
Relations between the American business community and the Hong Kong business community were just as intimate as possible, whether it was law firms or finance or manufacturing. So we were strong partners, even as both Americans and Hong Kongers pursued opportunities with the Chinese mainland.
“There was more and more fear mongering, not so much by the Hong Kong democracy activists as by the press back home”
The handover was an amazing event. It was unique. We were a key part of it because we were the largest foreign community and probably the dominant foreign community by that time. There was a small diplomatic group that met every month or so composed of us the Brits, the Australians, and the Japanese. We had extremely close coordination. The Japanese Consul General turned over around the handover and he didn’t want to do this. Before that it was a very, very close, constructive relationship between key countries to maintain stability, prosperity and, as much as we could, democracy for Hong Kongers.
That was our agenda at the Consulate: Look after the interests of Americans and ensure continuation of the key unique role of Hong Kong. At the Consulate, we all got out into society as much as we could. I met with labor unions, I met with democracy activists, I met with establishment politicians, with Chinese representatives from provinces as well as the “official” representatives, at that time at the New China News Agency (Xinhua). We were a very active consulate. We had a lot of fun at a fascinating moment.
When the handover approached there was more and more sort of fear mongering, not so much by the Hong Kong democracy activists as by the press back home. People in Washington kept asking me these weird questions about how the Chinese are going to impose their rule on Hong Kong. The strangest predictions began appearing in the news.
So, we decided we had to correct these wild stories and mis-impressions. We were clear: the handover was going to be smooth and the imposition of Chinese rule was going to be a more subtle, long-term proposition requiring steady involvement and vigilance on the part of the United States.
Our view, as well as that of the business community and of most in Hong Kong, was that the Chinese can’t afford to screw this up; they’re going to be very careful. They’re going to be scrupulous at least in the beginning. We have to be scrupulous too and make sure they stick to the deal. This is not an invasion by the Communists.
But, many in Washington were freaking out. The press were freaking out. On the CBS evening news one night, Dan Rather showed pictures of Chinese tanks — the ones from the Tiananmen incident of June 4, 1989 — superimposed on Central Hong Kong. (Photo shows activists pushing a replica of a Chinese tank on June 4, 2014 across a street in Hong Kong to commemorate Tiananmen Square. Credit: AFP/Alex Ogle/Getty Images)
One day, I was talking to our counterpart at the National Security Council of the White House, Sandy Kristoff. She said: “Well, you’ve got to tell us again and again that things are going to be okay and that Hong Kong is going to maintain its independent identity.”
“Well,” I said, “that’s what I tell you. I send a cable that says that one way or the other like every two days.”
Sandy says, “Richard, people don’t read your cables. They read The Washington Post and The New York Times.”
So I called up Keith Richards, the Washington Post correspondent, and said, “We’ve got to talk.” I tried to be always available for him after that. Anytime he wanted to talk or was working on a story, I was available. He was an excellent reporter. I didn’t try to force my views, just to make sure that my views were represented. I gave him lots of juicy quotes about how things were going to be okay and said that there was a very vigilant community of Hong Kongers and foreigners who were going to make sure Hong Kong was not corrupted and that its integrity was maintained.
Secretary [Madeleine] Albright came out for a few days before the handover for meetings with the community, with legislators, with activists. The main event was the handover ceremony on the night of June 30-July 1.
The event took place at midnight in the Metal Cockroach, as we called it: the brand new convention center with a silver roof that sloped gracefully into two wings that came off the side. So it was known to everyone around town as the Metal Cockroach. It extended out into the harbor on a brand new peninsula. It was glorious.
She represented us at the ceremony: a perfectly orchestrated flag raising on an indoor flagpole. The organizers had rigged a little motor inside, driving a fan to blow on the Chinese and Hong Kong flags as they were raised. The organizers made sure the flags would flutter straight out during a very calm midnight ceremony inside. The preparations were incredibly detailed and spared no expense. The fireworks were spectacular.
With Secretary Albright and her team, we went to the Metal Cockroach a little early. The organizers had set aside a hold room for her in the building, but since the construction had just finished, it was horrible: bare concrete and cinder block. So, we moved to the main hall and socialized with other delegates. I didn’t know the people on the visiting delegations.
At one point, the Secretary was approached by someone who I thought looked a lot like the recently indicted head of the Colombian parliament. I went over to her and pulled her away on “urgent” business. A few weeks later I saw the same guy and realized he was a Central American Consul General, perfectly innocent. Just mistaken identity.
After the big ceremony, Secretary Albright flew out. There were a whole series of grand events in Hong Kong. One was a joint Chambers of Commerce event. The business communities wanted to celebrate the handover and show their imposing presence. It was a huge gathering, also in the Metal Cockroach. A little strange at times. There were two Las Vegas showgirls who escorted people on and off the stage to give their speeches, a very unusual touch for Hong Kong. But that was part of the event.
They did give out a wonderful Ferragamo tie just for the occasion: a crisscross of dragons and the bauhinia, the Hong Kong flower. Very classy. All these handover events showed what I’ve always loved about Hong Kong: exciting, big, brassy, new, classy, monied, tacky and always bubbling.
We thought that things were going to get boring after the big event, very normal. We were going to be watching for subtle, under the table signs of the Chinese influence and analyze how they were operating. However, the day after the Handover, the Thai government had to devalue the baht which immediately dropped through the floor.
That was July 2nd, 1997; the start of the Asian financial crisis. All hell breaks loose in the financial scene and, of course, Hong Kong feels the effects of the crisis because that’s where the money is, that’s where big name bank deposits and loans are originated, syndicated and booked. Businessmen in Hong Kong — local and foreign — do business all over Asia.
Hong Kong became a financial story and a stability story. We did everything we could to support stability.
For example, in February 1999, [Supreme Court] Justice [Anthony] Kennedy came and spoke to the Hong Kong law community, which was, I have to say, one of the most spectacular speeches I’ve ever heard. He spoke in the main chambers of the Hong Kong Supreme Court or the main hall, gilded, wooded and very elegantly British. All the judges and justices, including the chief justice and the judges of the Hong Kong Supreme Court wore their British robes and wigs. The law establishment, which made Hong Kong unique and preserved its integrity, were all there.
And he delivered a speech that was one of the most amazing events I’ve ever seen. A great speech on a plane of morality, justice and ethics — a level of legal abstraction that was not familiar to me but which everyone in the room seemed to understand.
It wasn’t an ordinary discussion. It wasn’t the way people talked about daily life. It was a Supreme Court dialogue, principled — principled to the nth degree. He didn’t get into politics or the handover, but he made sure the judges and justices knew they were part of a unique community of law, with strong friends in this worldwide fraternity. He talked about speaking truth to power, his job, but also their. That was the message for Hong Kong. It was an amazing speech, an stirring occasion, and a unique audience. Law was vital to Hong Kong and our interests there. In addition to the visit by Justice Kennedy, we also supported exchanges with the American Bar Association and other groups.
Before the handover we also worked with the British, and after the handover by ourselves, the help the last wave of Tiananmen Square demonstrators get out to the United States. We welcomed — very quietly — several leaders who were wanted on the mainland who’d been in hiding for a number of years in various parts of China. They’d arranged to be smuggled out to Hong Kong. We helped them move to the the United States on humanitarian parole very quietly without leaving much if any record. And we were able to do some of that after the handover even but most of it was before.
Visas to America and Claims of U.S. Citizenship
Q: What about the large group of Hong Kongers who had American visas and already had citizenship?
BOUCHER: There were a lot of people who had set up a base outside of Hong Kong, not knowing how things would turn out. The wave came before ’97. For about 10 years Hong Kongers had been buying property in the United States, often settling their families in the United States or in Vancouver, British Columbia.
Many places had advertised in Hong Kong, and then experienced a property market bubble because of Hong Kongers buying. These places were coming in pitching and setting up real estate offices in Hong Kong to sell. So everybody who could in Hong Kong was buying property, getting green cards and residency, or at least securing their ability to travel with long-term visas.
People would do a trip just to get their visa renewed so they had a 10-year visa in their passport. We were okay with that. We felt that their long-term interests were in Hong Kong, most of their property was in Hong Kong. They were likely going to stay in Hong Kong over the long term and had no real intention of moving to the United States but they wanted to have a fallback just in case. So it didn’t really create much of a problem for our visa officers.
Q: Did you still have a group that conducted the investigations of claims of citizenship?
BOUCHER: Yes, we did. Our American Citizen Services officers and their wonderful and experienced Hong Kong staff took care of Americans and determined, based on the facts, whether people who were applying for passports qualified for citizenship, similar to what I had done in the mainland twenty years before.
In fact, when I started working on American citizenship issues in Guangzhou in 1979, it was the expert team of local employees from Hong Kong who came up and trained us; many of them were still in Hong Kong working at the Consulate.
We didn’t see a lot of new applicants for citizenship, not as many as we had right after we opened up on the mainland, but many of the cases were complicated by decades of law and history. Our officers and local employees would find out everything they could about the applicants, check their records in the States and decide if the applicants were Americans or not.
As earlier in China, we frequently had problems with Chinese applicants for citizenship because some of these claims went back to grandparents — back to a relative who came to the United States before the San Francisco earthquake and fires of 1906 destroyed buildings full of records. So many applicants would show you their grandfather’s documents from the early to mid-1900s say or 1918 or 1919; you couldn’t always verify the authenticity of the documents or know that these replacement documents were based on a registered and verified claim of citizenship.
If the grandfather wasn’t a real citizen, then often the parents and the applicants wouldn’t be either. When I was doing this in Guangzhou in 1979, there were consular officers back in Washington who said “Well no, we’ve got to have the original registration.” Of course the original registration was destroyed in the fire and the later paper was a replacement document.
We got into big fights with Washington because we believed in our applicants and sympathized with their plight and felt that those in Washington were just being sticklers for rules. So it got to be a little weird sometime arguing these cases with Washington. That happened in Hong Kong too with mainlanders who made it there who were applying for their passports.
“So, here we are under Chinese sovereignty and there’s a U.S. naval vessel parked in the middle of town”
There’s one more thing I should talk about. Hong Kong had been a regular port of call for the U.S. Navy for decades. A few weeks after the handover, August I believe, we arranged for the first U.S. ship visit after the handover. It was seen by us and by the Chinese as well as a reassurance that Hong Kong was “as before.”
The flagship of the Sixth Fleet, the USS Blue Ridge, came down from Japan with a other ships. The Blue Ridge was the flagship with Admiral [Joseph] Prueher on board, Commander of the Fleet. He later became Ambassador in Beijing. That was the first time I met him.
Instead of parking in the harbor and bringing Navy personnel back and forth on small boats, as we frequently did in Hong Kong, we arranged for the Blue Ridge to pull right up to Ocean Terminal, the big pier near where the Star Ferry docked, which was, at that time, probably the second biggest shopping mall in Hong Kong, full of people, smack dab in the center of downtown Kowloon, visible from much of Kowloon and from virtually every point on the island.
So, here we are under Chinese sovereignty and there’s a U.S. naval vessel parked in the middle of town. The Commander gave a reception on board where, according to protocol, both the U.S. and Chinese anthems were played. We all found it a bit eerie, but it was quite a message, one which both we and the Chinese wanted to send at the time: Hong Kong abides.
We arranged for the new Chinese commander who had just moved his small garrison into Hong Kong to come visit our ship. We welcomed his group of a dozen or so Chinese officers to the ship at Ocean Terminal. It was a mob scene, people, press, shoppers, all hoping to get a look and a picture.
We had told the Hong Kong police this was going to be a major event and they had people there but I think none of us realized how crazy the press and the crowds were going to be. We had to push the press back as we walked towards the ship so that our Chinese guests could cross the gangway and get onboard. Finally, they were piped aboard.
The Admiral gave them a tour of the ship. One moment I found very interesting. We took them into the command room ablaze with screens, communications equipment and watch stations. During a battle, they know the position of every vessel and aircraft within hundreds of miles, and where their own assets are and which systems are functioning. When this thing’s lit up in a classified mode it is sort of amazing, the amount of information they’ve got.
On this day, they were running CNN on the screens and showing the commercial feed of ship positions in the harbor — pretty cool, but only a hint at what they can really do.
What was really impressive for the Chinese generals was when we went through a door into the room next door. It was just an ordinary room with metal tables and chairs and row upon row of racks. All unoccupied. These were the supplementary work stations set up with computers and screens.
At one point the sailor giving the briefing says, “This is where we put Allied and other commanders that we’re operating with, other task forces and units that we’re coordinating with, in joint exercises or joint operations. They come and occupy these spaces. We have this equipment here for them so that they can all have the same visual displays and so that they can access their own information feeds. But these computers are 18 months old and we’re going to get rid of them, get new ones.”
You could see the Chinese generals’ jaws drop. They were operating in the pen-and-pencil, land-army stage of military plans and here the Americans are throwing away 18-month-old computers because they’re too old. I thought it was a moment of deterrence; it was a moment when some senior people in the People’s Liberation Army learned that they were outmatched by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. armed forces.
That may also have been a moment when they said to themselves, “Hey, we’ve got to get some of this stuff, too.” Because that’s eventually the direction that the Chinese military and navy began going, integrating advanced technology into their plans. You see the fruits of that investment now as to develop more information warfare, as they call it.
So, it was great to be so far ahead, but we have to keep working hard to stay ahead of potential competitors like the Chinese.