Hong Kong Runs Red: What the Hong Kong protests mean for Australia’s policy on the PRC
Louisa Bochner
28 October, 2019

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the contentious extradition bill on September 4, but unrest, dissatisfaction and violence has only increased in the city.

For protesters, the withdrawal was “too little, too late”. They have vowed to not desist until their other four demands – an independent inquest into the police’s use of force; amnesty for arrested protesters; a cessation of calling protests ‘riots’; and universal suffrage for the people of Hong Kong – are met. The protesters have now also asked for the new ban of masks to be lifted.

At a time when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is challenging Australia’s core values of rule of law, freedom of speech and regional peace and security, Australia must respond to the Hong Kong situation.

The PRC has applied pressure on Hong Kong through three avenues. First is a concerted attempt to shape the international narrative surrounding the protests, orchestrated by actors linked to the state. This includes directed Twitter campaigns and propaganda campaigns labelling the protestors as “terrorists” influenced by “foreign forces”.

Second is the “routine” People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison change in August. Analysts fear that the PLA’s failure to disclose the number of troops and equipment indicates that the military presence increased.

Third, the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) has pressured protesters with arbitrary violence, which has been well-documented on Twitter. Police have fired live rounds, in one instance shooting a 14-year-old in the leg. Whilst Amnesty International and the UN have condemned the police violence, it is clear that PRC state media strongly support the actions of the HKPF. Such actions cannot be directly attributed to the PRC government, but the leaked audio transcript of Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s words to a group of businesspeople in late August suggests a decent chance that senior politicians in Hong Kong face some level of pressure from the PRC government, whose sentiment may influence actions taken by the HKPF.

Canberra’s response to the Hong Kong situation has been diplomatic, largely supporting the principle of ‘one country, two systems’, without direct criticism of the Communist Party of China (CPC).

In September, Prime Minister Scott Morrison stated that it would be unwise for Australia to “go around and tell every country how [to] run their show”. Foreign Minister Marise Payne also stated that universal suffrage was a matter for Hong Kong. She further stated that the unrest was no reason to halt ongoing negotiations for the Australia-Hong Kong free trade agreement. Senator Penny Wong reaffirmed her support of ‘one country, two systems’, falling short of directly criticising the CPC.

While Federal MPs have expressed intentions to establish a ‘Parliamentary Friends of Democratic Hong Kong’ to call for a peaceful resolution, they have not indicated whether issues of police violence or the PRC’s propaganda campaigns will be directly addressed.

Given Australia’s prior reluctance to condemn human rights abuses elsewhere, this reaction is unsurprising.

The Australian government’s failure to publicly condemn the CPC’s actions vis-a-vis Hong Kong tacitly permits the PRC to violate rule of law elsewhere, such as in Taiwan and the South China Sea.

However, speaking up about issues in Hong Kong will not come without consequences. Australia’s economy is largely reliant on the PRC, especially in education, tourism and commodities. The PRC often uses economic retaliation, such as in its reaction to South Korea’s deployment of THAAD.

In response to the above concerns, I make three policy recommendations to assist the Australian government negotiate an official response to the Hong Kong protests:

1. The Australian government should clearly define our values of rule of law, democracy and freedom of speech and respond publicly and directly to the PRC’s serious breaches in semi-autonomous regions.
2. The Prime Minister must communicate to the Australian public the potential economic consequences for defending our democratic values with regards to the PRC. The Prime Minister must clearly state that this situation is no different to most of history when democratic values have been at stake.
3. Australia should increase multilateral engagement across the Indo-Pacific region to ensure we are united against potential threats of economic retaliation by the PRC.

The PRC’s reaction to the Hong Kong protests is an existential threat to international rule of law, freedom of speech and human rights – which has direct consequences on Australian values and how we interact with the PRC. Australia must commit to its democratic values with a direct and articulate response.

Louisa Bochner is the Program Coordinator of the International Cyber Policy Centre at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. In 2018, Louisa graduated with First Class Honours from the University of Sydney in the discipline of Chinese Studies, where she researched Chinese Communist Party rhetoric about women from 1950 to 1962. Prior to working at ASPI, Louisa was the Project Officer at China Matters and a Research Assistant at the American Chamber of Commerce in Sydney.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not represent the views of China Matters.