China has taken a swipe at Australia after demonstrations in Sydney and Melbourne against what has been widely seen as a move by Beijing to increase its grip on the self-governing territory of Hong Kong.
An editorial in the Global Times, a mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party, said protests in Australia supporting demonstrators in Hong Kong were merely staged “shows” and suggested they were funded by deep pocketed organisations “ready to foot the bill”.
Hong Kong, a “special administrative region” of China with more freedoms than the mainland, is in crisis over plans that critics say could give Beijing unprecedented sway over its legal system.
Amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance law, if passed, would allow people in Hong Kong to be extradited to China to face trial — a prospect described by local media as “unsettling at best and downright frightening at worst”.
That could fly in the face of the “one country, two systems” framework that Britain and China negotiated when the UK handed back its former colony to Beijing in 1997.
Up to a million Hongkongers have taken to the streets of the city state in recent days to protest the extradition law, with some clashes between police and protesters turning violent.
About 1000 people marched through Sydney on Sunday to demand Australia join the United States, United Kingdom, European Union and Canada in protesting the new extradition treaty proposal.
Protests have also taken place in Canberra, Melbourne and Brisbane.
But the Australian government has remained relatively silent, leading some senior political figures in Hong Kong to question why Canberra won’t speak out.
AUSTRALIAN PROTESTS JUST ‘SHOWS’
Despite this reticence from Canberra, the government controlled Global Timeszeroed in on Australia in an editorial published yesterday, which accused “Western supporters” of holding Hong Kong “hostage”.
The missive begins by rubbishing claims of the numbers of people protesting, claiming they were far fewer on the streets.
While the demonstrations are widely thought to be the biggest in a decade, the paper said the opposite was true and a “decreasing number of people” were taking part in what it called “street politics”.
The editorial then turned its attention to Australia.
“According to foreign reports, similar demonstrations on a smaller scale have taken place in some cities in countries such as Australia,” the editorial read.
“In Western societies, if some forces want to hold such political demonstrations and there are organisations ready to foot the bill, it is easy to stage such shows,” it said.
The Global Times dismissed any suggestions the protests were homegrown and instead pointed ominously at “international forces” that had “collaborated” with protesters in Hong Kong “instigating the opposition to create more chaos”.
“Western countries … actively point an accusing finger at Hong Kong affairs, instigating the opposition to create more chaos.
“Washington has been particularly active in meddling in Hong Kong. Obviously, the US is trying to use Hong Kong affairs to pressure China. Some radical opposition members in Hong Kong are hand-in-glove with the US,” the story continued.
“But from a historical point of view, the waves they created are just bubbles in the air. The future of Hong Kong will not be held hostage by the opposition and their supporters.”
It said the amendments to the extradition law “should not be abandoned” by the Hong Kong authorities.
It seems the Hong Kong Government, which is stacked with politicians appointed by China, has taken note.
The region’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam said on Monday a debate on the new law would continue tomorrow as planned.
She has denied she is acting on Beijing’s instructions.
“I don’t think it is (an) appropriate decision for us now to pull out of this bill because of the very important objectives that this bill is intended to achieve,” she said.
“While we will continue to do the communication and explanation, there is very little merit to be gained to delay the bill. It will just cause more anxiety and divisiveness in society.”
Hong Kong has extradition treaties with a number of nations including Australia — but not with China, which it is part of. This is because of concerns over Beijing’s far murkier legal processes and its woeful human rights records.
Ms Lam has said the law change was essential to prevent the territory from becoming a “fugitive offenders’ haven”.
Amendments to the bill, she has claimed, will prevent people from being deported on political or religious grounds.
But critics said that was just a fig leaf and people Beijing disapproved of could still be spirited away to the mainland on other spurious charges.
The extradition changes have followed a number of moves by Beijing that have worried some residents. This has included barring pro-independence politicians from taking their seats in parliament and the opening of a new rail link to the mainland, which saw Beijing set up customs and police checks on Hong Kong soil.
EFFECT ON AUSTRALIANS
There are even concerns the new law could ensnare Australians, 100,000 of whom live in Hong Kong. Many more visit the region or transit through the city’s huge airport.
“As an Australian, you might not have committed a crime in Chinese territory, and you might think this does not affect you. Well, unfortunately, this is not true,” said Zion Lo, from the Australia-Hong Kong Link, a community organisation based in Melbourne that helped promote the local rallies.
“If China believes that you are a foreign threat, and if you are travelling through Hong Kong, you might be extradited to China, imprisoned and arbitrarily punished”.
International human rights lawyer Simon Henderson told news.com.au any Australian who travelled or transited through the city would be “directly impacted” upon setting foot on Hong Kong soil.
“The reason this is so significant for any individual is because they will be subject to an unfair trial; arbitrary detention; potential torture and a legal system that doesn’t protect human rights,” he said.
Last December, two Canadians were detained and formally arrested by the Chinese government for spying. To this day, their location is unknown.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said it was monitoring the situation but was yet to issue a move to oppose it.
“The Australian government is taking a close interest in the proposed amendments to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in Hong Kong, including to ascertain any impacts on Australian residents,” a spokesman told news.com.au in a statement.
“The Australian Consul-General in Hong Kong has raised the issue with senior levels of the Hong Kong government.”
That’s not enough for Mr Lo: “We urge the Australian government to immediately condemn this unnecessary law and support the people of Hong Kong to fight for a fairer and just democratic society.”
By Benedict Brook