Foreign Minister Marise Payne has warned Hong Kong’s government it “risks inflaming a delicate and sensitive situation” by using emergency laws for the first time in 50 years as thousands of protesters defy orders and return to the streets.
Delivering her strongest comments to date on the deteriorating situation in the Chinese territory, Senator Payne said”the invoking of emergency laws in Hong Kong with the prospect of further action” was “very concerning to Australia”.
The intervention from Australia’s top diplomat in the domestic affairs of another state marks a rising concern within the Morrison government that the situation is likely to deteriorate further, putting lives at risk in a city that is home to more than 100,000 Australians and destabilising the region.
Senator Payne said the Hong Kong authorities were responsible for ensuring the appropriate and proportionate use of force.
“While full details are still emerging, we know that two young protesters have been shot, and a journalist badly injured,” she said. “We are deeply concerned by the use of live ammunition, fired directly and at close range.”
Swathes of Hong Kong’s train system were shut over the weekend as shopping malls, supermarkets and banks closed. Chaotic scenes saw a teenager shot and a policeman set on fire on Friday night after the government instituted a ban on all face masks, which have been used for protection against tear gas and have become a symbol of the protest movement.
The weekend marked the 18th consecutive week of protests in the city. The unrest began in response to a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be tried in courts on China’s mainland. They have since morphed into a broader rebellion against the Chinese Communist Party and the Beijing-backed government of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam.
Violent protests erupted on the streets on Friday just hours after Lam invoked the colonial-era emergency powers last used more than half a century ago.
Speaking in a televised address on Saturday, Lam said the movement’s “extreme violence” justified the use of the emergency law.
Lam said the ban on face masks was ordered under laws allowing authorities to “make any regulations whatsoever” to protect the public interest.
But the move has enraged demonstrators, who gathered in force on Hong Kong’s streets to vent their anger, many wearing masks.
Some set fires, hurled petrol bombs at police and burned the Chinese national flag and targeted Chinese banks on Friday in a direct challenge to authorities in Beijing.
Protest leaders planned two further separate demonstrations to be held late on Sunday, one on the island and another on Kowloon Peninsula, with many expected to turn out in defiance of the ban on face masks.
The city’s rail operator reopened parts of the metro system late on Saturday after the unprecedented shutdown by authorities seeking to quell the months-long pro-democracy movement.
Many of the busiest stations remained closed as the Chinese territory braced for the prospect of more unrest on Sunday night.
The operator’s closure had largely paralysed movement across the city, with the network typically carrying about five million passengers a day.
Senator Payne said Australia has consistently called for de-escalation and for fundamental freedoms including the right to freedom of assembly and freedom of speech to be maintained.
“We urge the Hong Kong authorities to seek to resolve the current situation by listening and responding to the legitimate concerns of all its citizens,” she said.
By Eryk Bagshaw
Sydney Morning Herald