Grenville Cross： Hanscom Smith departs——Good riddance to failed diplomat
As diplomats represent their country’s interests abroad, most realize that tact has a vital role to play if anything is to be achieved. As Sir Isaac Newton long ago recognized, “tact is the knack of making a point without making an enemy”. This quality, however, is lost on the United States, and, after Michael Hanscom Smith was appointed its Consul General to the Hong Kong SAR on July 6, 2019, he disregarded diplomatic norms.
From the outset, Smith, as befits somebody appointed by the ex-President, Donald Trump, behaved like a political bruiser. Instead of seeking to influence events through measured diplomacy, he noisily sounded off on every possible occasion, oblivious to the offense he caused. In the process, he helped to poison US relations with China yet further, and became an unwanted guest.
The end of Smith’s tenure on July 12 was, therefore, greatly welcomed, and any successor can only be an improvement. Having held three postings in China, one might have imagined that some of its civility might have rubbed off on him, but he will always be remembered as an unmitigated boor. He may, of course, have imagined that his conduct would earn him an ambassadorship, in which case good luck to him, although the Far East will hopefully have seen the last of him.
Although, like a Jekyll and Hyde character, Smith professed affection for Hong Kong, he did nothing to prove it. When it was threatened in 2019, he did not lift a finger to help, and even bellyached when it tried to defend itself. As violent mobs tried to wreck the “one country, two systems” policy, in order to destabilize China, Smith failed to stand with Hong Kong, clearly afraid of upsetting Trump. He also did nothing when, on July 14, 2020, Trump ended Hong Kong’s trading privileges, said the city would no longer be able to “compete with free markets”, and announced that “Hong Kong markets will go to hell, (as) nobody’s going to do business”.
Whereas any true friend of Hong Kong would have resigned as a matter of honor, Smith was a man of straw. A careerist, he clearly had his own agenda, as his political liaisons revealed. On August 6, 2019, for example, his political counselor, Julie Eadeh, at the height of the turmoil, was discovered, for undisclosed reasons, holding covert meetings at a local hotel with leaders of the social unrest, including Joshua Wong Chi-fung and Nathan Law Kwun-chung. Thereafter, on August 5, 2020, he was found meeting privately with the Civic Party Chairman, Alan Leong Kah-kit, at his offices, although Smith’s spokesman obfuscated over the meeting’s purpose.
In August 2019, moreover, at the time of Eadeh’s meeting with Wong and Law, two Civic Party leaders, Alvin Yeung Ngoc-kiu and Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, visited the US, and urged its Congress to enact legislation harmful to Hong Kong. Although Smith must have known of the trip, the extent of his complicity has yet to be disclosed, whilst Yeung, currently charged with endangering national security, will hopefully spill the beans at some point.
Thereafter, on April 22, 2021, there were shocking revelations in the High Court, and Smith’s antics were vividly exposed. When the former Civic Party legislator, Jeremy Tam Man-ho, who is charged with conspiracy to commit subversion, applied for bail, his lawyer, Edwin Choy SC, told Justice Esther Toh that Tam had received three emails from the US Consulate, dated September 25, 2020, December 8, 2020 and February 17, 2021, inviting him “to meet the Consul General for coffee”. As Tam did not reply, Smith’s motivation is unknown, but his invitations show that, even after Tam had resigned from the Legislative Council, on November 11, 2020, he still retained some residual value, at least in Smith’s eyes.
As Justice Toh explained, Tam was one of the four Civic Party legislators who, on September 2, 2019, wrote a letter to the leaders of the US Congress, which “urged that the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights Act 2019 should be passed, which was detrimental to the Government of Hong Kong and its citizens”, something Smith would have known. In refusing Tam bail, Toh concluded that there was “no doubt” that Tam was a “key signatory of the letter to the US Congress, and his influence is evidenced by many invitations to meet the US Consul”.
Although Smith witnessed for himself how the “one country, two systems” policy was almost wrecked by the rioters in 2019, he still, as Trump’s puppet, objected when Beijing finally acted to end the violence. While the National Security Law for Hong Kong of 2020 saved the city and stopped the mayhem, Smith, instead of welcoming it, bleated away about the new law being a tool of “repression” that created an atmosphere of “fear and repression”. What he meant was that the US-backed plan to harm China by sacrificing Hong Kong had been foiled, and his political masters in Washington DC were not best pleased, perhaps even blaming him for not having tried harder.
Although the National Security Law finally gave the city the tools it needed to combat the subversive activities and terrorism which had plagued it for months, Smith branded it “a tragedy for Hong Kong”, which was bizarre. As he knows well, the US has multiple national security laws, many draconian, operated by numerous agencies. They include the Espionage Act, which is being used to hound the hapless Wikileaks founder, Julian Assange, currently fighting US attempts to extradite him to what he sees as certain death in the US. Yet Smith, and his political masters, had the gall to complain about Hong Kong also possessing the laws necessary to defend itself from those bent on destroying the “one country, two systems” policy.
Not content with impugning the National Security Law, Smith also traduced the electoral reforms of 2021, calling them “an enormous step backwards”, which fooled nobody. As political wreckers had sabotaged the body politic, prevented the legislature from functioning, and used the city’s fledgling democracy to harm the “one country, two systems” project, the need for electoral reform was obvious. All this, however, was lost on Smith, who objected to patriots rather than wreckers having their hands on the levers of power, and his time in Hong Kong has been utterly wasted.
As Smith prepared to depart, he remained a mischief-maker to the very end. Although, following the enactment of the national security legislation and the implementation of the electoral reforms, Hong Kong has bounced back, both economically and politically, as the global indicators testify, Smith is still trying to run it down. On July 11, in his farewell speech to the American Chamber of Commerce, he once again dished the dirt, with an eye on the gallery in Washington DC. Sounding for all the world like a broken record, he claimed, contrary to the evidence, that the National Security Law threatened Hong Kong’s role as an international business hub, that the electoral reforms undermined its future, and that foreign interference had not contributed to the city’s recent traumas.
He presumably said this tongue in cheek, as the extent to which the protest movement and its armed wing received support from such US-based organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy and the US Agency for Global Media and its Open Technology Fund, and from such UK-based organizations as Hong Kong Watch and Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong, is well documented.
If, moreover, Smith had read Nury Vittachi’s brilliant expose, “The Other Side of the Story”, he would have known that other US-backed groups were also complicit in the insurrection, including the Oslo Freedom Foundation, the Albert Einstein Institute and the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategy. And if, as Smith claimed, the US was not calling the shots, he should have told the American Chamber why fleeing rioters, like Brian Leung Kai-ping, one of the vandals who trashed the Legislative Council on July 1, 2019, were greeted like returning heroes when they escaped to Washington DC.
By fascinating coincidence, on July 12, the day after Smith’s valedictory, the US Congressional-Executive Commission on China (CECC), which comprises both US Senators and Congressmen, produced an explosive report. It threatened Hong Kong’s public prosecutors, 15 of whom it named, with punitive measures if they continued to discharge their duties as they thought fit. In other words, the CECC was attempting to undermine the city’s criminal justice system by interfering with the exercise of the prosecutorial discretion in particular cases, thereby endangering the rule of law. Apart from anything else, this shows that Smith misled the American Chamber over foreign interference, and everybody can now see for themselves the sort of skullduggery of which his country is capable.
Throughout his years in Hong Kong, Smith was an entirely negative influence. He achieved nothing, and events passed him by. He tried to harm the city, but the “one country, two systems” policy was more resilient than he or his political masters could ever have imagined. With his departure, everybody can breathe a collective sigh of relief, although we must also hope he remembered to take his candles with him.
This article represents the view of the author only.
The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the Director of Public Prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.