Wednesday 6 November
The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has been leaderless, partly to prevent authorities targeting the organisers. One of the few named activists has been Bonnie Leung, a 32-year-old district councillor.
Last month, Leung visited Canberra with a message for Australia’s MPs: she urged them to delay ratifying a free trade deal with Hong Kong. “If we are about to be killed, what good is the trade deal for us?” she told The Australian.
When the deal was signed in Sydney in March this year, it received little attention. Hong Kong has traded freely with Australia for years and, despite its small size, is Australia’s twelfth-largest trading partner. Three months after the signing, however, the protests in Hong Kong broke out, opposing a law that would allow extraditions to the Chinese mainland. Suddenly, Australia faced questions about whether to proceed with a deal that appears to endorse the city’s current administration.
Leung’s call to reconsider the deal was backed by members of Australia’s Hong Kong community. But their plea has been rejected. Instead, the government has defended the deal, saying it would help to affirm Hong Kong’s autonomy.
But this reasoning is flawed. China can undermine Hong Kong’s special status under the “one country, two systems” principle, yet still allow it to sign separate trade deals. This would be the Chinese Communist Party’s ideal scenario: to preserve Hong Kong’s prosperity and its position as a commercial hub, but to stifle the free and open dialogue that has led to the city being a source of strident criticism of the Party. In Hong Kong, unlike on the mainland, an internet search for “Tiananmen Square” leads to 1989.
Last month, the parliament’s joint standing committee on treaties delivered a report on whether to ratify the deal. A majority, consisting of Coalition and Labor MPs, said the deal should be adopted because it “would reaffirm and strengthen Hong Kong’s autonomous status”. The Greens dissented, saying: “This is an opportunity for the Australian Government to back up its words of concern with action, and demonstrate to the Chinese Government and Hong Kong authorities that repression will not stand.”
In principle, Australia should support free trade, particularly at a time when it is under threat. It should not make trade dependent on whether its partner has an unblemished human rights record – a position which would leave it with few or no partners, and, given its own recent blemishes, would be difficult to defend. Instead, the government has the harder task of balancing its competing interests – of deciding when violations of human and political rights become so unacceptable that they warrant sanctions or disruptions to trade flows. In the case of Hong Kong, this involves assessing when the city’s autonomy has been lost.
The treaty has been supported by Labor and the Coalition in the House of Representatives and is due to go to the Senate by the end of the year. The Senate should endorse the treaty, but not until the crisis in Hong Kong is resolved, and with this qualification: that it is dependent on China continuing to uphold “two systems”. Following the release of the treaty committee’s report, Labor’s trade spokesperson, Madeleine King, outlined such a position. She said that if Hong Kong’s government tried to reintroduce a bill to allow extraditions to China, or if China intervened militarily, these would mark a “clear line” and would require Australia to reconsider the bill.
The pro-democracy protests have continued for five months and are becoming increasingly violent. The future of the city, and of its freedoms, is uncertain. Australia should not pretend that it is business as usual with Hong Kong.