Oceania | Diplomacy | Oceania

Australia Carefully Watching Unrest in Hong Kong Unfold

Countries like Australia need to assess their stakes in Hong Kong.

Grant Wyeth
Australia Carefully Watching Unrest in Hong Kong Unfold
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The ongoing protests in Hong Kong show little sign of abating. Measures that symbolize Beijing’s authoritarian impulses — like invoking emergency laws to ban face masks — only exacerbate the fears of Hong Kongers and entrench the sense of unease. Without any signs that the crisis is heading toward a resolution, countries like Australia will need to assess their stakes in Hong Kong and calculate how its shifting political landscape could change the country’s interactions with the city. 

At the core of Australia’s approach to the situation is guarded affinity with the aims of the protest movement. While Australians in general are wary of protests, the values that the protesters are seeking to maintain (and strive toward) align well with Australia’s own approach to political organization. The maintenance of the rule of law and respect for human rights, as well as the promotion of democratic values, are broadly understood as universally positive. These values were outlined in Australia’s 2017 Foreign Policy White Paper as critical components of the country’s internal stability and its global influence. 

Over the weekend, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne stated that the invoking of emergency laws by the Hong Kong government was “very concerning to Australia” and urged “the Hong Kong authorities to seek to resolve the current situation by listening and responding to the legitimate concerns of all its citizens.” The minister’s statements gave an indication that the Australia government was, alongside the people of Hong Kong, wary of Beijing’s encroaching influence in the city. In June, Payne issued a statement welcoming the suspension of the Hong Kong legislature’s consideration of the Extradition Bill that had ignited the protests. Her statement affirmed that “Australia values Hong Kong’s unique advantages and freedoms under ‘One Country, Two Systems,’ the rule of law and its independent judiciary. Australia supports freedom of speech and peaceful protest.”

Alongside this understanding of shared values is a blunt assessment of Australia’s interests in its relationship with Hong Kong. In 2018 Hong Kong was Australia’s 12th largest trading partner, with two-way trade amounting to $12 billion. As well as this trade in goods and services, Hong Kong is Australia’s fifth largest source of foreign investment, with stock worth $80 billion invested in Australia at the end of 2018. For outward Australian investment, Hong Kong is its 11th largest destination, with value totaling $35.2 billion in 2018. There are also around 100,000 Australian citizens living in Hong Kong, and 96,000 people from Hong Kong living in Australia.  Over 600 Australian companies have a presence in the city. 

In order to preserve these interests, the Australian government is invested in maintaining the certainty of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the framework implemented in 1997 that is designed to protect the city’s economic system for 50 years from any interference by Beijing. Any movement from Beijing that undermines this agreement could produce a serious economic cost to Australia, as well as threaten the livelihoods of many Australian citizens living in Hong Kong. The prospects of those people from Hong Kong currently living in Australia being able to return to the city could also be at risk.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

There have been calls by Hong Kong-Australian community groups to the Australian government to allow citizens of Hong Kong on temporary visas to remain in the country indefinitely (currently around 19,000 people). While this could be deemed an extraordinary measure — and conditions in Hong Kong many not yet warrant such an action — it does have a precedent. In 1989 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, then-Prime Minister Bob Hawke granted permanent residency to all 42,000 Chinese nationals who were in Australia at the time on temporary visas. However, a similar action today by the Australian government would most likely be deemed provocative by Beijing. 

Yet many citizens of Hong Kong may already be suspicious enough of the changing situation in the city to be seeking to use Australia’s skilled migration program to emigrate. Through this channel, the Australian government wouldn’t need to make any bold statement that could irritate China, it could simply look kindly on Hong Konger applications. Many people from Hong Kong already have the education and skills necessary to fulfill the requirements of Australia’s points based immigration system. As unfortunate as it is for Hong Kong, this increase in skilled immigrants would be to Australia’s advantage. 

The other pressing dilemma for Australia in regards to the ongoing unrest is how to proceed with the Australia-Hong Kong free trade agreement. The agreement was signed in March this year prior, to the start of the present unrest, but is yet to be ratified by the Australian parliament. It is presently under consideration by the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties. The agreement was negotiated with an understanding of Hong Kong’s regulatory framework being guided by the Basic Law. If these laws are further encroached upon by Beijing it may significantly alter the trading — and labor — conditions in the city. At this moment, ratification seems unlikely as long as the present situation persists. 

This could quickly turn from unlikely to impossible should Beijing see fit to more forcefully intervene in Hong Kong. The prospect of more severe Chinese intervention in the city remains an ever-present possibility in the city. Jamil Anderlini, Asia editor of the Financial Times, wrote over the weekend that the lesson Beijing learned from the 2014 “Umbrella Movement” was that with their pressure on the Hong Kong government to imprison protest leaders and expel politicians from the legislature they were too soft on the movement. This time, when China considers the time right, they will instead “ruthlessly punish” Hong Kong. Should this eventuate Australia would not be caught in a dilemma of interests versus values; its interests would be its values.