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China and Hong Kong: What Should Australia Do?

02 Aug 2016
By Simon Henderson
31th Day Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution. Photo credit: Studio Incendo (Flickr) Creative Commons

Recent developments in Hong Kong are a threat to its unique status and to Australia’s interests, but the Australia-Hong Kong dynamic is overshadowed by the complex relationship with mainland China. However, with Australia campaigning for a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, it is important the Australian government maintains its commitment to democratic values and the one country, two systems model.    

In August 2014 protests erupted in Hong Kong, capturing the attention of international media. Images were beamed around the world of students running from police and tear gas. Soon afterwards, streets in Central, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok were occupied in a peaceful display of political protest. Influenced by the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, protesters cleaned up after themselves, studied in the streets and engaged in detailed political debates over the future of Hong Kong. While the Occupy protesters are no longer physically on the streets, the concerns about Hong Kong’s political future and China’s increasing encroachment continue. Developments in Hong Kong are of more relevance to Australia than many would believe.

Australia has a significant interest in what happens in Hong Kong. Over 80,000 Australians reside in the city, making it after London, the city with the second-highest number of Australians living abroad. Kevin Rudd realised the importance of votes from these Australians abroad, with 7 metre-high billboards containing his image in Tsim Sha Tsui during the 2007 election.

The investment relationship is also strong. Hong Kong is Australia’s  fifth-largest source of investment with a stock of AU$51.3 billion at the end of 2013. Hong Kong is also an attractive investment destination for Australia, our eleventh-largest, with a stock of $30 billion at the end of 2013, dominated by services such as banking and finance, engineering, health, education and legal. Hong Kong has been an important conduit for Australia’s trade with China. In 2014, more than $5.4 billion in goods traded between Australia and China was routed through Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has built up a reputation over many decades as a free market that welcomes foreign investment. Hong Kong’s success can be attributed to many factors such as its legal system, freedom of press, education system and respect for civil liberties. These characteristics were guaranteed under the one country two systems model as Hong Kong passed from British to Chinese hands. However, what has emerged in recent years should be cause for concern. For example, press freedom has significantly deteriorated since 1997. A July 2016 report by the Hong Kong Journalists Association titled One Country, Two Nightmares highlighted serious concerns with the increasing incursions by China into Hong Kong’s autonomy. Meanwhile, the Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index has seen Hong Kong fall from 34th in 2010 to 69th in 2016. Other areas such as politics, education and the legal system are increasingly under pressure.

Domestic market forces are feeling the strain. Economic factors, such as high costs of housing and slow wage growth have created widespread resentment, especially among the youth, towards the Hong Kong government. Compounding concerns are the increasing strains faced by Hong Kong’s infrastructure by mainland Chinese visitors, particularly tourists and cross-border traders, leading to protests in the border area of Tuen Mun last year.

These issues are partly reflective of a policy and leadership failure from the Hong Kong government, but also a reticence from the Hong Kong government to do anything that might offend China. A fear recently expressed in the Hong Kong government’s reaction, or lack thereof, to the screening of the dystopian film Ten Years at the 2016 New York Asian Film Festival.

Recent developments in Hong Kong are a threat to its unique status and to Australia’s interests in Hong Kong. Understandably, the Australia-Hong Kong dynamic is overshadowed by that bigger relationship over the border. However, that has not stopped like-minded partners. During the 2014 protests, the responses from the US and the UK governments were relatively principled and robust. Their statements condemned the violence against protesters and supported democratic development in Hong Kong. However, Australia was left on its own, at least publicly. In a November 2014 interview, the Foreign Minister Julie Bishop erroneously linked the Hong Kong Occupy movement to Occupy protests in Brisbane, failing to understand the political nuances and context.

The Australian government’s approach to Hong Kong’s political situation now and into the future needs to be cognisant of Australia’s relationship with China. However, it should not and need not be at the behest of China, undermining Australia’s support for democratic values, the rule of law and the protection and promotion of human rights. At a time when Australia is campaigning for a seat on the 2018-20 United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) with a commitment to “promoting good governance and stronger democratic institutions everywhere” it is all the more important that the Australian government adheres to its professed values.

The Chinese and Hong Kong governments only have themselves to blame for the rising Hong Kong independence movement. The winding back of Governor Patten’s reforms shortly after the handover, failure to reform functional constituencies, pushing back promised universal suffrage timetables, and deeply unpopular chief executives seen as kowtowing to Beijing have contributed to a sense of distrust among Hong Kong people towards political reforms. The perception among some Hong Kong people is that if real and substantial democratic reforms are unpalatable then independence might be the only option. While independence is unrealistic, as China would not allow it, agitation will lead to increased pressure for real reforms. In turn, calls will build for clearer positions from foreign governments. Australia should follow its like-minded partners, where opportunities arise, and publicly express its support for the protection and promotion of human rights, rule of law and universal suffrage in Hong Kong.

There are many ways in which public actions can be taken by the Australian government and the Commonwealth Parliament. Examples include media releases from the Hong Kong Consulate, public statements by the foreign minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade annual reports, an inquiry by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights under section 7(c) of the Human Rights (Parliamentary Scrutiny) Act 2011, statements in the UNHRC (as per the recent joint statement on 10 March 2016) and more. Unlike the UK and US, there are no annual human rights reports or regular reporting mechanisms for human rights issues in Hong Kong. However, there remain a range of options yet to be utilised.

The Chinese and Hong Kong governments may demand that foreign governments not interfere, arguing that human rights are internal affairs. However, that is simply not the case. There are strong human rights arguments, whether that is the universality of human rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled, Article 39 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law or China’s commitment to the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. However, just as relevant is the strategic imperative. Hong Kong is of interest to many countries, given that it is one of the world’s most globalised cities. Politics, law and institutions cannot be so easily distanced from trade, financial markets and banking.

Attempts to stand up for Australian values will not risk our economic relationships with Hong Kong or China. International pressure can have a real and substantial impact as the detention and subsequent release of the Causeway Bay booksellers demonstrates. However, the window of opportunity is closing in Hong Kong. As states fail to bring public attention to the protection and promotion of human rights in Hong Kong, China becomes emboldened to push harder. Australia is a country that has the ability to do and say more.

Simon Henderson is a senior policy lawyer, Human Rights, at the Law Council of Australia. The views expressed in this article are of the author’s and do not represent the views of his employer. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.