An Interview with Stephen Young, U.S. Consul-General to Hong Kong and Macau

Hong Kong:Macau Stephen YoungStephen M. Young is the Consul General of the United States in Hong Kong, the highest representative of the U.S. in the Special Administrative Region of China. Young joined the State Department in 1980 and will retire this year, after 33 years in the Foreign Service. During that time, Young served in Beijing and Moscow, as well as the Ambassador to the Kyrgyz Republic and the Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto Embassy in Taipei. In Washington, he served as the Director of the Office of Chinese and Mongolian Affairs, and the Director of the Office of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh Affairs. Young was also a recent faculty member at the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces. He received a B.A. at Wesleyan University and an M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.

The Politic: Why did you join the Foreign Service?

My father was a military officer and wanted me to follow in his footsteps, but my older brother had already done that. [So it] seemed to me that I could do something slightly different. I had been interested in foreign affairs — my father had fought in Korea and Vietnam and that influenced my interest in the Cold War — and I thought maybe I should look at Russian and/or Chinese when I went to university. When I got out of university and went on to graduate school, I thought maybe I would look at the Foreign Service. I knew that they offered the test and that it was a job that allowed you to be a diplomat and get involved with foreign policy.  It had the advantage of being public service like [the kind done by] my father and my brother and grandfather, who all went to West Point and served as military officers.

The Politic: It is now increasingly easy for non-state actors to be involved in international relations. How did the WikiLeaks revelations affect your ability to do your job in Taiwan, either in the immediate aftermath of the leaks or in the long-term?

In general, WikiLeaks has to have been something that, I think, most of us in the Foreign Service were unhappy with. For this reason: we all talk with a variety of people and solicit their candid opinions about sometimes sensitive subjects, and the premise — sometimes unstated, but often stated — is that we will protect their views from public disclosure. So when [Julian] Assange pushed the button and put 250,000 cables from all around the world on the Internet, he violated that trust of thousands and thousands of people who believed that they were talking to the United States in privacy. I don’t know that anybody has been jailed or killed over that, but there’s certainly been a lot of people who have been negatively affected by the fact that people read that they talked to the Americans in countries where maybe that’s not such a cool thing to do.

The Politic: More recently, how did the Edward Snowden leaks change the relationship with Hong Kong and more specifically your ability to do your job?

Well, you know, it’s a complicated one, and I’m going to be a lot more guarded here because this is an ongoing situation where the United States and my liaisons in Washington are very involved in what we believe is our just request to have this man face criminal charges back in America. He showed up in Hong Kong, actually, while I happened to be in New York at a U.S.-Hong Kong business event and the Chief Executive, the leader of Hong Kong, was also there. We were both quite surprised to find this guy was in Hong Kong. We then worked with Hong Kong to get him extradited back to the United States to face charges under an extradition agreement that we had negotiated some time ago.

We also have a Mutual Legal Assistance Agreement (MLAA) with Hong Kong that mandated cooperation on law enforcement issues. In the end, despite our request that he be held and considered for extradition back to the United States, they let him get on a plane and leave Hong Kong.  That has put a damper on our relationship. As you probably know, President Obama, Secretary Kerry, and other senior officials have criticized both China and Hong Kong for their failure to [detain Edward] Snowden in Hong Kong and to process our request for his extradition. Once he left, we were cleaning up the damage to the bilateral relationship here, and as I have said publicly, it damaged the trust that had been the underpinning of so much of what we do with our Hong Kong colleagues. I have also publicly suggested it is going to take time and effort on both sides to restore that trust.

The Politic: I know that you [Foreign Service Officers] have to follow a certain policy line into which you have input, but to separate the personal from the professional a little bit, how did you balance that? Washington wants to have a certain dialogue with Hong Kong, with Beijing, but you over many years have established personal connections with a lot of the people that you work with. What was that dynamic like?

Hong Kong Map of Hong KongI think that having personal relations with people you have to do business with in any profession is important, especially to build trust with people you sometimes need to work with on difficult subjects. To the extent that you’re successful, maybe later on you can be more candid about the pros and cons of this or that question in quiet discussions. I sought people here with whom I’d been working for years — I’d begun my current posting here in March of 2010 — and it helped that I knew them when I would go in. Because when you deliver a tough message and say, “We’re unhappy with what you’ve done, it’s damaged trust,” you want to have a sense on their part that you’re not doing this because it’s fun but because you’re representing your country’s interests in making clear the costs and benefits of various actions.

On the other hand, I’m about to leave after three plus years — I’ve known for some time I was leaving later in July. It was good that I knew all the key players with whom I needed to talk. At the same time it was difficult that in my waning weeks I was delivering a very tough message to them, because of course from their perspective, they’ve said that public opinion here tended to lean toward Snowden, because he cast himself as a whistleblower and as an earnest young man that was disserved by American policies. Whereas for us he was somebody who had been given a position of great trust as a consultant of the U.S. government and Booz Allen. He violated that trust and provided access to privileged information that this trust gave him. So there was some tension, but I think knowing the people I was working with made it a little easier. 

The Politic: To get a better sense of the situation on the ground in those few days, which have been already heavily reported on, what did your day-to-day look like in the days immediately before and after Snowden left Hong Kong for Russia?

Before we were, as I say, trying to talk with them about implementing our request to have him extradited back to the United States. Afterwards, I first had to wake a bunch of people up in Washington in the middle of the night on a weekend when I learned he had already left on a plane for Moscow. I then had to convey a tough message about the disappointment the U.S. government had as a result of Hong Kong’s actions. I think the shift in Washington (despite the frustration with Hong Kong) was to try to figure out what we would do under the circumstances where he was now in Moscow, seeking to transiting Russia. Some of the countries where he was considering asylum requests were the objects of Washington’s diplomacy. But for me, it was quite a lot of saying, “We’ve got a problem here. You left a lot of high-ranking officials in government wondering, ‘How much of a partner do we have?’” The way I put it was that obviously we bring China into all of this as well, and my colleague, Ambassador Gary Locke, in Beijing, was involved in that side, as well as Secretary of State Kerry and others — conveying our severe displeasure with their behavior.

But the difference was (and I’ve said this publicly): we have a whole lot more going on with China, and you can’t just focus on one issue and stop the presses on all the other things. So the problem with Hong Kong is that senior policymakers like President Obama or Vice President Biden or Secretary of State Kerry now wake up every morning thinking about Hong Kong, and now when they do, they’ll think, “Those are the guys that in a pinch, when we asked them for something, were unable to do it for us and basically hid behind the smokescreen of working with us on the request for his extradition while they were prepared to allow him to slip out of the country,” or out of Hong Kong, which is a Special Administrative Region. As I’m about to leave, and you can Google and see things I’ve said — there’s a New York Times article based on my press conference yesterday you can read, and also one or two on the net, in the Wall Street Journal. But I’m saying we have got work to restore the trust that was damaged by the way this case was handled.

The Politic: Having served in Russia, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, and speaking fluent Russian and Mandarin, how would you say the trilateral relationship has changed between the U.S., Russia, and China in the last ten years?

Well, [in the past] ten years, maybe twenty years, there was a time when we and China had an overlapping interest in checking some of the aggression of the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, Beijing and Moscow were not on good terms — something that goes back to the 1950s and differences of opinions on a lot of issues when Mao was in charge of China. But they began to patch things up in the late 1980s, and then the Soviet basically imploded and broke up into fifteen countries, Russia’s global reach was significantly reduced. China, on the other hand, has been growing economically, commercially, and in political influence for the last several decades, particularly the last ten years (as you asked), so we have our complex relations with each. I think now it’s possible to say that the U.S.-China relationship, as President Obama said, is the most important relationship in the world. That probably would have been the U.S.-Soviet Union twenty to thirty years ago.

Xi Jinping, the new President and Party Secretary of China, chose Moscow as his first stop. I think that was partly because he was heading off to other events and it was a good place to move as he was going toward other parts of Europe and Latin America, but it also to some extent reflects the fact that China and Russia continue to be, at a certain level, frustrated by the overarching influence of the United States and have a tactical interest in teaming together to damage that influence when they can. A great example recently has been Syria, where they’ve blocked efforts by us to end the terrible civil war that Bashar al-Assad has unleashed and which is taking such a human and political toll on that country. But we have a relationship with each of them, and we work both on the areas where we cooperate, like right now on North Korea and to an extent Iran, and then on ones where we don’t see eye-to-eye, like Syria.

I don’t think China and Russia have the basis for a strategic partnership in the long run because they are neighbors with a long border. China is a rising power; Russia is somewhat of a middle and maybe even a declining power despite its large nuclear arsenal. Frankly, if you look at the history, Russia and China have had a lot of disputes over the last several hundred years about their borders. China has been more aggressive in staking out claims to territories particularly in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, and that makes all of the neighbors nervous. But when China publicly says that this or that island or sea has been (and I’m paraphrasing their diplomacy) a sovereign part of China since ancient times, you’ve got to wonder what the Russians think, because in ancient times, if you define that as a couple of hundred years, parts of Russia were ceded by China during the 19th century under what they now term “unequal treaties.” So if I were Russia, I’d be wondering: As China continues to grow in power, is it going to turn from saying that the Senkaku Islands are theirs or that the South China Seas are theirs, to saying, “Well, Mongolia and Russia are ours, too,” and maybe a lot of other places?

This is a challenge for China as it becomes a more powerful regional and global power, as the poet once said, to see themselves as others see them. Because I can assure you from my experience that not just Russia [but also] a lot of countries that share a border with China are nervous that a rising China will mean trouble for them both in diplomatic relations and possibly in territorial issues. China and India fought a war over territory; the Soviet Union and China had armed clashes over territorial disputes back in the late 1960s and early 1970s; Vietnam and China have had such clashes; I could go on and on. So the real question for all of us is: Is China going to be the peaceful rising power that everybody is hoping for, or will it become more combative and more territorially aggrandizing as it becomes the dominant East Asian power, as appears to be the case?

Full view of Kowloon and Hong Kong
Full view of Kowloon and Hong Kong

The Politic: With respect to your 33 years in the Foreign Service, can I ask you to make one quick comment, now that you’re retiring? 

[Laughter] I’m going to spend more time watching the Boston Red Sox!

I’m proud to have served in the U.S. government. I think that the United States is a land with great ideals; we don’t always match up to them, but we aspire to them and I think that’s important. And I think that we’ve continued to inspire people and countries around the world with the great freedom and liberties that we have been squabbling over and defending for over 200 years since we emerged from the Revolutionary War, and with the founding of a constitutionally-based government in the late 1780s.

I would urge people studying foreign affairs at Yale to consider careers in foreign affairs. You are not going to get as much money as you will if you go off and work on Wall Street or in business, but the satisfaction is terrific; the experience is unmatched to be living in exotic foreign cultures and working to advance American interests. I gave a speech at my alma mater Wesleyan University a couple of weeks ago, at my fortieth reunion, to the graduating seniors. I said that the thing that motivates people in life is not how much money they make in the job; it’s what gets them out of bed in the morning. If you love what you do, and you enjoy the experience day to day — you want to do it in the long term — then you made a good choice, and I think for me, the Foreign Service was that choice. Then I would encourage young people to consider, among other things, [the Foreign Service is] something that you can take an test to try to gain employment; you don’t have to pay a bunch of money, you don’t know have to know somebody on the inside to get a job.


Consulate-General of the United States in Hong Kong:

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