Hong Kong’s special trade relationship with the United States has given China the opportunity to steal sensitive technology it would not otherwise have access to, according to American lawmakers and officials.
“There is certain open-source evidence of the Chinese violating what we would call our ethical standards,” R. Clarke Cooper, the State Department’s assistant secretary for political-military affairs, told the Washington Examiner.
Cooper was constrained in how he could talk publicly about espionage threats in Hong Kong, but regional analysts have long worried that the former British colony is “an important conduit for the acquisition of advanced Western technology for China.” The political crisis that has gripped the city this summer has put Beijing’s encroachment on the semi-autonomous metropolis on dramatic display, spurring U.S. government discussions about the prudence of maintaining Hong Kong’s special status.
“We believe it is critical that the United States take appropriate measures to ensure China does not abuse Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law to steal or otherwise acquire critical or sensitive U.S. equipment and technologies in support of its strategic objectives or to infringe on the rights of people in Mainland China, Hong Kong, and elsewhere,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman James Risch, an Idaho Republican, and ranking member Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, wrote in a Tuesday letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross.
The committee leaders, joined by a bipartisan bloc of eight other senators, noted that Hong Kong “has become an integral part” of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. U.S. officials regard the vaunted economic program as an insidious effort to undermine American power and widen Beijing’s influence.
“The Chinese government has demonstrated its willingness to use both licit and illicit means to acquire and advance its development of technologies such as artificial intelligence, tools of mass surveillance, and advanced robotics, among others,” the lawmakers wrote. “China is using these technologies not only to bolster its own industries, but also to advance its military capabilities and to infringe on the fundamental liberties of its citizens.”
Those concerns have been decades in the making, given that Hong Kong “was not subject to Cold War-era technology export controls placed on China and other Communist regimes by Western governments,” as a 1998 RAND Corporation assessment noted. The Senate letter suggests that should change.
“We request an assessment — either in writing or in the form of a briefing — on whether our export controls are sufficient to safeguard U.S. interests, and an identification of any gaps,” the senators wrote. “Finally, we would appreciate an update regarding any relevant interagency discussions on revamping U.S. export controls towards Hong Kong as a means to address China’s continued erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
The letter was signed by influential members of both parties: Rhode Island’s Jack Reed, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee; Senate Banking Committee Chairman Mike Crapo, an Idaho Republican; Florida Republican Marco Rubio, a senior member of the Foreign Relations and Intelligence panels; Ohio Democrat Sherrod Brown; Colorado Republican Cory Gardner, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for East Asia, the Pacific, and International Cyber Security Policy; Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey; Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat; and Pennsylvania Republican Pat Toomey.
Cooper, who said he hadn’t seen the letter, acknowledged that even publicly available information makes clear he “could not” say that China isn’t pilfering Western technology from Hong Kong.
“From an unclassified sense, Beijing is not going to forgo any opportunity to acquire technology that they don’t have or have not yet developed, and Beijing certainly does not have as known the parameters or restrictions that either the United States or other Western states may have on research and development,” Cooper told the Washington Examiner. “If you look at it from that context,” he concluded, “then one could not rule that out.”