The dramatic images of protests and clashes with police in Hong Kong have rightly grabbed the attention of the Australian media for a fortnight.
What has been less clear in the coverage — and in the restrained response from Canberra — is why Australians should care about the seemingly forlorn struggle for democracy in a faraway Chinese city of seven million people.
But Hong Kong is no ordinary Chinese city. When the British handed over the former colony in 1997, Beijing promised that Hong Kong would enjoy democratic freedoms and autonomy in everything apart from defence and foreign affairs for 50 years — under the one country, two systems arrangement.
Australia and other nations conduct business with Hong Kong on much more favourable terms than mainland China precisely because of this autonomy and the rule of law.
The protests of the past few weeks were sparked by opposition to a bill that would have allowed, for the first time, anyone in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. That would have breached the all-important firewall between Hong Kong’s legal system, based on the same British common law as ours, and the capricious, repressive mainland regime.
As part of a wider crackdown on opposition to the Communist Party, President Xi Jinping has put unprecedented pressure on Hong Kong’s special status.
The Hong Kong government, which is appointed by Beijing, has disqualified elected politicians, jailed pro-democracy leaders, expelled a senior foreign journalist and looked the other way when Beijing’s agents kidnapped its adversaries in the city.
Xi’s squeeze has earned China reprimands from a range of Western nations including the US, Britain, Canada and Germany, as well as the EU. Australia has been more muted. Canberra rightly raised concerns about the now-suspended extradition bill and reaffirmed its support for “Hong Kong’s unique advantages and freedoms under one country, two systems”. But we didn’t go as far as some Western allies.
Of course, we do not have the same responsibility towards Hong Kong as Britain, whose 1984 treaty with China is meant to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms. Nor do we have the same power as the US to push back. And the Morrison government is clearly — and understandably — reluctant to upset Beijing so early in its new tenure, when the bilateral relationship is already in a precarious state because of China’s anger at the decision to ban Huawei from new 5G networks.
But whatever the diplomatic niceties, the protection of Hong Kong’s unique freedoms and role within China is in Australia’s national interest.
First, the huge numbers of Hong Kongers who have taken to the streets to defend their city from Beijing’s encroachments share Australia’s core values of political, economic and religious freedom, liberal democracy and the rule of law. The practice of foreign policy often requires the subordination of values to interests. We must be pragmatic in dealing with all kinds of political systems in our diverse neighbourhood.
But we also should find ways to give succour to those who have a similar world view, not out of altruism alone but because it serves our interests by making those societies more stable, successful and friendly to our interests.
Second, Hong Kong’s struggle is not an isolated one. The challenge Australia faces to manage interference from the Chinese Communist Party is similar to the one Hong Kong faces. As a sovereign nation that is far away, Australia is much better protected. But Hong Kong it is on the frontline of an intensifying global ideological battle. On one side is an assertive communist China that views democracy as anathema and the rules-based order as an optional framework. On the other are those people and nations believing liberal democracy, albeit bruised and battered, is fundamental to success and survival.
That is not to say Beijing wants simply to export its authoritarian model around the world. It is more a case of its system and ours being fundamentally incompatible. Hong Kong is a test case of Beijing’s willingness to uphold international agreements and its ability to live with a different political system rather than destroy it.
Third, Australia has a significant direct stake in the preservation of Hong Kong’s freedoms, which have underpinned its success as a global financial centre.
Hong Kong is home to about 100,000 Australians — one of our biggest expatriate communities. The city is Australia’s biggest commercial outpost in Asia. Australian companies have invested more than $50 billion in Hong Kong and commerce is expected to be boosted by the signing of a bilateral trade and investment agreement in March. Beijing’s erosion of Hong Kong’s rights and autonomy is undermining the confidence of international investors and, if unchecked, could increasingly threaten the wellbeing and prospects of the Australians living there.
The global attention on Hong Kong is likely to wane in the coming weeks as media attention shifts, but the risks to the future of Hong Kong and its people will not.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, US President Donald Trump has sought to rein in criticism of Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong in the hope of a favourable trade deal with Xi.
At a time when US credibility is so lacking, it is all the more important middle powers such as Australia stand up together and speak out strongly in defence of the core values we share with Hong Kongers. Criticising Beijing may not be cost-free, but neither is doing nothing.