14 August 2019
Every week in Australia about 55,000 people travel to Hong Kong, which for decades has been one of the country’s most popular destinations. Yet, last week the Australian government changed its official travel advice for Hong Kong to “Exercise a high degree of caution”. Protests and random attacks on demonstrators, the advice warned, have become “less predictable” and are expected to continue.
On Monday, protesters shut down Hong Kong’s international airport, the world’s eighth busiest. But their intended audience was not Hong Kong’s pro-China government, or Beijing. It was us. “Hong Kong is dangerous”, said one billboard. “Save democracy – Free Hong Kong”, said another. The protesters believe their best chance of preventing a gradual slide towards authoritarianism – or a bloody crackdown – is to attract international attention and support. Their hope is that this might dissuade Beijing from intervening to end the pro-democracy push or to assert control over the city.
In the two months since the demonstrations began, their focus has moved beyond a proposed extradition law to the expression of a broader frustration with Hong Kong’s pro-China legislators and the conduct of local police. China has responded with intensifying hostility. This week, its Hong Kong office referred to the protesters as “terrorists” and deployed a convoy of armoured personnel carriers to the neighbouring city of Shenzhen.
The situation is precarious. Veteran China watcher Bill Bishop says that a resolution would require compromise by the local police and government, which are instead acting with increased force. “I hate to be so negative but it does feel like we are approaching the precipice of something very worrisome,” he wrote in his latest Sinocism newsletter.
This was not how the creation of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was supposed to pan out. When the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997 it was hoped that, by the time its period of special autonomy ends in 2047, China would have adopted a form of democracy that would enable a smooth absorption of the city. It was also presumed that if China rejected democracy, its growth would remain limited, and it would therefore need to retain Hong Kong’s special status to preserve the benefits of the city’s flourishing economy. But this hasn’t happened. China is rising despite its authoritarianism, and it no longer relies heavily on Hong Kong.
For Australia, China’s actions in Hong Kong present challenges that, unlike its treatment of Tibetans or Uighurs, extend beyond the need to defend human rights. Australia has wide-ranging interests in Hong Kong. The city is the source of almost $119 billion worth of investments in Australia, and Australians have $52 billion invested there. It is Australia’s twelfth-largest trading partner and home to about 100,000 Australian expatriates.
While Australia has politely disputed China’s treatment of the Uighurs at the UN Human Rights Council, the current crisis in Hong Kong requires a much firmer response, one that will seriously test Canberra’s relations with Beijing. On Tuesday, Scott Morrison travelled to a waste processing facility in Sydney to announce a new recycling program. At the press conference that followed, each of the first four questions was about Hong Kong. “I’m concerned like everyone is about these events, and I’m keen to see them de-escalate,” he said.
For now, like the rest of us, there is little Morrison can do but wait to see how this unfolds. Australians are rescheduling their international flights. They are watching closely. They are invested in the city’s future. Hong Kong is dangerous.