What are the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices (ETOs)?
Hong Kong Economic and Trade Offices (HKETOs) in the U.S. were founded after the handover of Hong Kong by the British to China in 1997 in order to “broaden, deepen and enrich the already strong economic, trade, investment and cultural ties between Hong Kong and the U.S.”1 According to the official website of their D.C. office, the ETO serves two primary functions 1) to liaise with Congress and executive branch on matters related to economic engagement with Hong Kong and 2) to host cultural events like their annual film festival, “Made in Hong Kong,” and increase awareness about Hong Kong and its arts and culture. ETOs serve no consular functions, despite receiving diplomat-like privileges and immunities.
In addition to the Washington-based office, the ETOs have a presence in New York and San Francisco in the U.S., as well as in 14 other locations across the globe, including in Brussels, London, and Geneva, among others.
What privileges are afforded to employees of the HKETOs?
Employees of the U.S.-based HKETOs were conferred special privileges and immunities through Executive Order (E.O.) 13052 implemented on June 30, 1997. The E.O. derives these privileges from the International Organizations Immunities Act (IOIA) and Article I of the Agreement on State and Local Taxation of Foreign Employees of Public International Organizations.
Privileges and immunities include, but are not limited to, the equivalent of diplomatic immunity (which unlike diplomats, can be waived), immunity from search and seizure (including at the airport), and exemptions from customs and import taxes, as well as property taxes. These, and other privileges are extended to family members of HKETO employees and officers under the IOIA.
Why should the ETOs existence in the U.S. be questioned?
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decertified Hong Kong’s special status under U.S. law on May 27, 2020 after the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced its intent to impose the National Security Law on the people of Hong Kong. The decision meant that the Secretary deemed that Hong Kong was no longer sufficiently autonomous as to merit separate treatment from the PRC under U.S. law and triggered a series of follow-on actions to decertify its special status. Given that Hong Kong is no longer deemed as sufficiently autonomous from Beijing as to merit separate treatment under U.S. law, it is questionable whether they should enjoy separate pseudo-diplomatic representation in the form of the ETOs.
What can be done to address the HKETOs?
The ETOs operate at the pleasure of the U.S. President. Given that Hong Kong’s special status was decertified, the President could, at any time, say that the ETOs are no longer able to operate as Hong Kong government entities distinct from the PRC. At minimum, the President should revoke any special privileges and immunities granted to employees of the U.S.-based ETOs and their family members. Should Hong Kong’s special status be recertified in the future, the Hong Kong ETOs, and their special immunities and privileges, could be reinstated. The U.S. should also look for any other organizations and entities that Hong Kong authorities are exploiting that expand CCP influence in the U.S.
1 Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, D.C., “About Us”, https://www.hketowashington.gov.hk/about-us.html.