Lobbying firms in the US were paid at least HK$84 million by the Hong Kong government to arrange meetings between city officials and US politicians between 2014 and 2020 to discuss topics such as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (The Act), an HKFP investigation has found.

Read in full: Inside the Hong Kong govt’s multi-million dollar US lobbying operation

HKETO Commissioner Eddie Mak met with Congressman Alan Lowenthal on Sept 12 2019. Photo: HEKTO Washington DC via Flickr.

US lobbyists were paid close to HK$84 million (US$10.8 million) in contractual fees between 2014 – when the bill which led to the act was initially introduced in the US – and 2020 by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council (HKTDC). The actual amount spent could be even higher when expenses and incidental costs are taken into account.

Together with expenditure by its own offices in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, the agency spent a total of HK$458 million (US$58.9 million) on its overall US operations, data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics showed.

The HKTDC is a statutory body led by business leaders and senior government officials.

‘Foreign Agents’

To operate legally in the US, the HKTDC and lobbying firms doing its bidding are required to register as “foreign agents” under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. The wide-ranging legislation requires foreign entities and individuals in the US to disclose their expenditure and activities that may influence any segment of the American public, whether they are political or not.

HKFP sifted through years worth of disclosure filings submitted by HKTDC and lobbying firms it hired, and found that lobbyists — some of whom were former congressmen — said they engaged in “political activities” on behalf of the agency.

Photo: FARA filing via US DOJ.

Lobbyists arranged at least six in-person meetings with US politicians in Washington DC to discuss the Act on behalf of the Hong Kong government, between late 2014 and early 2015, and again in September 2019.

Although the engagement contracts were signed by the HKTDC, the lobbyists received instructions from the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO) in Washington DC. Unlike the HKTDC, a statutory body, the HKETO is the Special Administrative Region’s official representative in the US.

HKETO commissioner Eddie Mak met with California Democratic Party congressman Alan Lowenthal on September 12, 2019, for a “[d]iscussion of U.S.-Hong Kong relations…; Hong Kong Human Rights Bills,” according to the disclosure filings. 

Hong Kong Commissioner Eddie Mak often met with US politicians in Washington DC and in other state capitals, the office’s Flickr account showed. Photo: HKETO Washington DC via Flickr.

They met just days before Hong Kong pro-democracy activists including Joshua Wong and Denise Ho testified before the US Congress about the city’s protests.

Two weeks later on September 26, congressman-turned-lobbyist from the firm Venable LLP, Bart Stupak, arranged another meeting with then House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Eliot Engel, shortly after the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees voted on the draft bill.

Geng Shuang, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman at the time, lambasted the vote the same day: “Such behavior… fully reveals the ill intentions of some people in the United States to mess up Hong Kong and contain China’s development,” he told a press conference.

Geng Shuang. File photo: GovCN.

Meanwhile, a Hong Kong government spokesperson said in a statement given after the activists’ appearance, that “foreign legislatures should not interfere in any form in the internal affairs” of Hong Kong.”

In response to HKFP’s enquiry about its lobbying efforts, a Commerce and Economic Development Bureau spokesperson said its representatives in Washington DC “proactively explained the situation in Hong Kong to our interlocutors and our contacts” and raised “strong objection to the Hong Kong Act.”

The Chief Executive Office’s did not respond to HKFP’s enquiry on whether the chief executive authorised or knew about the HKTDC’s lobbying efforts.

Stupak declined to comment for the story.

Read in full: Inside the Hong Kong govt’s multi-million dollar US lobbying operation

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Selina Cheng

Selina Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist who previously worked with HK01, Quartz and AFP Beijing. She also covered the Umbrella Movement for AP and reported for a newspaper in France. Selina has studied investigative reporting at the Columbia Journalism School.