American business community in Hong Kong expects ‘more comfortable’ conditions under Biden presidency

Laura Westbrook
·4-min read

American businesses in Hong Kong have largely welcomed a Joe Biden presidency as being better for their interests in the city, while analysts predicted he would maintain his predecessor’s tough stance towards Beijing – albeit in a more measured fashion.

At the same time though, international relations experts said they could not foresee the Democratic US president-elect rolling back recent controversial measures, such as the Trump administration’s revocation of Hong Kong’s special trade status, and its move to forbid “Made-in-Hong Kong” labels on exported goods in favour of ones reading “Made in China”.

Observers predict recent moves, such as forcing Hong Kong to relabel goods exported to the US as “Made in China”, are unlikely to be rolled back. Photo: Shutterstock
Observers predict recent moves, such as forcing Hong Kong to relabel goods exported to the US as “Made in China”, are unlikely to be rolled back. Photo: Shutterstock

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Joseph Ferrigno, an American financier and adviser who has lived in Hong Kong for more than 30 years, said he believed Biden would have “targeted engagement” with China.

“Whereas currently the Trump administration had been doing everything that is reasonable to decouple from China, I think that will change,” Ferrigno said.

The mood among American companies was generally positive, he added, because they saw a “less confrontational” approach towards China, which would make it “more comfortable” for them to do business with the mainland through Hong Kong.

Biden defeated the Republican incumbent Donald Trump in a closely fought, drawn-out race in which voters cast ballots in record numbers. States took days to count an unprecedented number of mail-in ballots from those who opted to avoid in-person voting because of the coronavirus pandemic.

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An American fund manager who has lived in Hong Kong for five years, and who asked to remain anonymous for fear of running afoul of local authorities, also said he believed a Biden presidency would improve relations between the US and China, rather than cause them to move further apart. However, while Biden was “less hawkish” than Trump, he added, there was now bipartisan agreement on the newly hardened American approach to China.

“The issue is the American public – regardless of what side of the aisle they’re on – is pretty unanimous in terms of their view now of China.”

Relations between China and the United States have plunged to their lowest level in decades due to a confluence of factors, including the coronavirus pandemic, disputes over technology and a bruising trade war.

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Hong Kong, meanwhile, has been stuck in the middle of the tug of war between Beijing and Washington, with Trump ending the city’s preferential trade status, and signing an executive order in July paving the way for sanctions against individuals and banks was deemed to have aided in the erosion of the city’s autonomy.

The move, which means that financial institutions could also be punished for dealing with targeted individuals, came just a month after Beijing imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong to criminalise acts of secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces.

A month later, the US Treasury Department named 11 current and former Hong Kong and mainland officials, including city leader Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who would face economic sanctions.

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Amid all the tumult, Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, said “there is some relief to see that we have a path forward”.

“The American business community, like the rest of the world, has a lot to contend with, from Covid- 19, to patchy economic growth, to a fractious US-China relationship,” she said. “So much has been on hold during the election season.”

But Julien Chaisse, a trade law professor at City University, warned that Hong Kong remained “caught between the two”. He said he did not believe that Biden would reinstate Hong Kong’s preferential trade status, because that would be perceived as being “in favour of China”.

“We are not back to the best years, but at least US trade policy should become more predictable and stable, which will help trade and businesses in Hong Kong to adjust,” he said.

Experts predict Hong Kong will remain caught in the middle of the tug of war between Washington and Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE
Experts predict Hong Kong will remain caught in the middle of the tug of war between Washington and Beijing. Photo: EPA-EFE

Chaisse said he believed that while Joe Biden would “return to the multilateral table because he is not a protectionist”, the US-China trade relationship would remain “strongly antagonised” – with consequences for Hong Kong.

“It is not yet the end of the trade war and Hong Kong will have to defend its rights,” he said, pointing to Hong Kong’s claim against the US at the World Trade Organization over the made-in-China labelling spat.

Baptist University Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, who specialises in Sino-American relations, also agreed that a Biden administration would not take a “risk” in restoring the made-in-Hong Kong labelling.

“It would acknowledge that Hong Kong remains autonomous, which [the US] does not believe is the case any more,” he said.

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