Uniquely extraordinary: Graf Lambsdorff, the departing German Consul General

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In many ways, Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff has been a most extraordinary consul general. As he exits, he shares his view on Hong Kong’s democratic development, its new leader and the future.

Many are the diplomats that come and go and who leave little trace of their passing on the city. Some do right by their home nations and build links between home and Hong Kong. A rare fewer still leave a lasting legacy, in the form of agreements and concords they can genuinely lay claim to have inspired and new channels of congress they have opened.

In recent years, absolutely unique has been the diplomat that spends political and personal capital in not only defending the interests of their home nation, but also that of the people of Hong Kong.

Witness ‘the Graf’.

Nikolaus Graf Lambsdorff, Consul General of the Federal Republic of Germany in Hong Kong, performed with aplomb all the usual head of mission duties. But to pretend that his time was marked with dull and dutiful speeches on trade statistics would be to sell him short.

His intelligence, wisdom and wit were deployed to good effect at key moments in Hong Kong. His observations, similar to his previous missions to Estonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Moldova, have served as another precious lesson in democracy.


In his own words

“[The German people] are interested in the well-being of Hong Kong people. That has not changed. That will go on.”

“I guess Hong Kong now appears to be more politicised, or at least a number of political, social, and economic issues have now become more public and are being debated in public. I find that a good thing,” Graf Lambsdorff says. “The general mood in Hong Kong has not improved though, and for an outsider that is a bit difficult to understand in such an affluent, modern, and still forward-looking, unique place like Hong Kong. But then the more you look into the issues, the more you begin to understand that there are certain reasons for frustration among a rather large part of the population in Hong Kong. I think those are the two main developments right now.”

Partly because of his ‘field studies’ in democracy worldwide and partly because of his political spirit embedded in his family, Graf Lambsdorff never shies away from raising some of the tougher issues that other diplomats choose to sidestep.

In the pages of Harbour Times at a time when the democracy debate was at fever pitch, he put his finger on the heart of the matter. While not criticising or calling anyone out, he explained, in a most diplomatic manner, the German thinking on what constitutes democracy. “With universal suffrage, our understanding is everybody has a vote and everybody can run.”

Those last four words set off a small firestorm of political controversy. While completely uncontroversial in modern democracies from Japan, Korea and Taiwan to the EU and Canada, this tiny phrase earned bouquets and brickbats from across the political spectrum in Hong Kong. The Consul General didn’t comment on this 2014 event in this interview, but was bullish in general about Hong Kong’s future.

“No German company has plans to leave Hong Kong. It’s still the location to do business.”

“I believe that for a number of the issues that are being discussed here, the solutions can be found. It’s difficult but then that’s politics, a number of the more municipal issues of Hong Kong are not unique when you look at other cities, they have to struggle with similar things,” he adds. “I’m convinced that everybody on earth is interested in politics, provided they are allowed to.”

Graf Lambsdorff at a farewell session hosted by Bright HK (credit: Bright HK)

“I wasn’t here during the time of, or before, the Handover, but from all that I’ve heard and read, the general feeling here was that the future was very uncertain at that time. People were looking for a second passport and were leaving Hong Kong. They simply did not believe in a good future. When you keep that in mind you have to come to the conclusion that the past 20 years overall weren’t so bad, and there were several serious crises which Hong Kong overcame successfully.” Graf Lambsdorff asserts. “So that’s why we keep stressing the importance of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ and we would like to see it develop in a good way. We Europeans always stress that we have interests in Hong Kong, and we are interested in the well-being of Hong Kong people. That has not changed. That will go on.”


Germans are all in – to Hong Kong

Graf Lambsdorff also reaffirms Germany’s commitment to contributing to the city’s economy amid the political challenges. “No German company has plans to leave Hong Kong. It’s still the location to do business. That forms the basis for still rather strong economic relations between Hong Kong and Germany, mostly in trade but then still also when it comes to investment in both directions, from the Mainland through Hong Kong to Germany and the other way around – it’s still happening.”

“[Carrie Lam] knows Germany, and I have a strong feeling that she likes Germany.”

Hong Kong is in negotiations with Germany regarding an agreement on the avoidance of double taxation, which Graf Lambsdorff says will be ready for signature in the second half of this year.

Graf Lambsdorff continues and praises Hong Kong for being “extremely efficient” in organising and planning the Asia-Pacific Conference of German Business held last November. “That’s a big compliment for Hong Kong. Most Hongkongers find this normal, but try to organise such a conference in another big Asian metropolis and you’ll see the difference – We know since we’ve been doing this for 30 years. So the conference here in Hong Kong was not just very well organised, but thereby and in itself very successful.”

There seem to be personal ties as well arising from affinities of character and (perhaps) mutual admiration. Graf Lambsdorff says Carrie Lam, who was the Guest of Honour of the German National Day reception three times in the past four years, reflects many German attributes.

“I think Germany has a lot to offer when it comes to municipal issues. That being said, I don’t think the Chief Executive needs much advice – She knows Germany, and I have a strong feeling that she likes Germany,” he smiles.

For one thing, Graf Lambsdorff does believe that there is still room for the Hong Kong government to promote itself more in Germany and continental Europe in general, to a point he feels like he is a Hong Kong ambassador in Germany instead. The worldly diplomat also calls on Hong Kong’s youth to travel more, “take more risks” and hopefully go to places where people don’t speak English.


Risky business

To this end, the German Consulate General Facebook page’s viral – sometimes cheeky – ‘Word of the Week’ corner has indeed offered a very down to earth (bodenständig) way for Hongkongers to learn German. Unique among consulates, it often speaks to issues of the day. It launched with the translation of the German word for ‘abduction’ (entführen) and featured a startled South Park-style cow in the spotlight of a hovering UFO – the same week the booksellers kidnapping cases became big news. Another featured the German word for ‘forget’ (vergessen) with an example: ‘History should not be forgotten’ and ran the week of June 4th.

This appeal to young Hongkongers’ real aspirations will hopefully attract them to German ideals and culture. “For a truly international financial centre, [having multilingual talents] will become more and more important. […] It’s very nice to see the number of Hong Kong students in Germany growing every year. That’s what we would like to promote and see more of in the future,” he suggests.


It’s still about Hong Kong

The time to say auf Wiedersehen has come and to trade in his chopsticks for a fork and spoon, assuming his new role as German Ambassador to Malaysia.

Graf Lambsdorff at a farewell session hosted by Bright HK (credit: Bright HK)

“I’m still in the state of denial – and so is my wife – of having to leave Hong Kong. I know there are plenty of direct flights between Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong and even Macau, so I’m not really ready to think or talk about Malaysia yet. For the next week or so it’s still about Hong Kong.”

If Graf Lambsdorff is as good to Malaysia as he has been to Hong Kong, he will bring a deeply thoughtful and nuanced stewardship of the German-Malaysian relationship to that country – and benefit her people in the process. Viel Glück, Graf Lambsdorff, und danke schön!