19 June 2019
A week ago, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam responded to the first mass protests against a controversial extradition law by claiming that relenting would be like spoiling her children. Days later, as the protests in Hong Kong continued, she suspended the law. After a further march on Sunday that was attended by almost 2 million people from a population of 7.4 million, Lam dropped the metaphor and apologised for her conduct, though many are still demanding that the law be withdrawn completely.
It was a stunning victory for the people and a humiliating setback for China’s Communist Party, which, thirty years ago, demonstrated an alternative method of ending public protests. But Hong Kong’s precarious future looms as a regional flashpoint, one that will increasingly force countries such as Australia to take sides, and to choose between values and expediency.
The Hong Kong protests have highlighted the island’s position as a society that clings to openness despite belonging to a rising power that curbs dissent. In recent years the Communist Party has attempted to exert greater control over the territory. It has detained Hong Kong–based critics of Chinese leaders, supported proposed anti-sedition laws, and constructed one of the world’s longest bridges to connect the island to the mainland. The attempt by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parliamentary majority (43 of 70 MPs) to allow extraditions to the mainland was viewed by the protesters as part of this creeping influence. And though the public may have won this round, the Communist Party is unlikely to cease challenging Hong Kong’s democratic impulses. This month’s conflict between the people and their pro-Beijing leadership is unlikely to be the last.
China agreed to a “one country, two systems” model for Hong Kong before Britain handed back its colony in 1997, a time when the island accounted for 16 per cent of Chinese gross domestic product. Last year, this was down to just 3 per cent. The Communist Party has overseen perhaps the greatest economic success story in history, and no longer views its blend of capitalism and authoritarianism as a potential barrier to Hong Kong–style prosperity. Accordingly, it no longer sees Hong Kong’s political freedoms as a trade-off for the territory’s contribution to China’s economy.
Australia also seems to be changing its position on Hong Kong – to a stance of caution and submission. Hong Kong and Australia have historically enjoyed close relations. The former British colony is Australia’s twelfth-largest trading partner and home to 100,000 Australians, making it one of the country’s largest expatriate communities. There are 87,000 Hong Kong–born people in Australia. As Chinese control of the territory continues to increase – and particularly if Beijing tries to use force to quell public dissent there – Australia could find itself taking in large numbers of Hong Kong immigrants, just as it welcomed 40,000 Chinese students after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
Australia’s Hong Kong community expected Canberra to support the popular struggle, especially as many fear that they or their friends and family back home could be extradited to the Chinese mainland for public criticisms of Beijing. Yet Australia’s foreign minister, Marise Payne, issued a tepid comment that was weaker than other international responses. She urged all sides to exercise restraint and insisted that any changes to the extradition laws should respect the territory’s autonomy. A leader of Australia’s Hong Kong community, Jane Poon, described the comments as bland, lacking in seriousness and “too neutral”.
As China grows, and as it becomes more assertive, Canberra’s incentives to remain quiet – and to neglect its support for democratic values – will only increase. It should not be left to the local Hong Kong community alone to demand a stronger response. Australian politicians, who are likely to err on the side of caution and silence when it comes to expressing differences with Beijing, will need to know where most so-called quiet Australians stand.