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Fear and freedom in a cold Quad

Four mainland Chinese made their presence felt at the 'NZ Solidarity with Hong Kong' rally held at the University of Auckland quad to support the territory's resistance to greater Chinese control.

One, a male student, held up a sign in Chinese suggesting advocating independence for Hong Kong was akin to terrorism.

He was surrounded by people doing little more than taking photos of him and his sign on their phones before he marched off towards a small room housing the Hong Kong students' 'Lennon Wall' of protest messages. He marched in, with security guards and those opposed to his message in tow, and pinned his sizeable sign across the neatly ordered post-it notes, before turning on his heel and leaving them all to it.

Before he was far down the corridor, his message lay on the floor, summarily removed by a man more sympathetic to the Hong Kong protest cause. All this action would have been helpfully caught on CCTV in the room which also captured an incident last week involving a physical altercation between Hong Kong and Chinese students.

As incidents go, it was minor and forlorn.

The student's claims about 'independence' were a straw man, in any case. No one at the rally or from the group who have led the Lennon Wall display seem to mention or favour 'independence'. Their cause is against further Chinese Communist Party control of the territory, a mooted extradition law that would have made Hong Kongers and visitors vulnerable to removal to the mainland, and, now, the Hong Kong Government and police's handling of the protests and general strike.

But the student loyal to China was just one of the four who made their point.

The three others spoke in the dialogue session in the quad, a civil and well-ordered gathering which began with video explainers about what is going on in Hong Kong and why, moved to protest messages from some Auckland students donning masks and helmets, and then had Act leader David Seymour speak on freedom of speech.

Last week at the university one of the rally's organisers, Serena Lee, was pushed in that dispute with male Chinese students around the Lennon Wall. She asked yesterday for people to debate with respect and calm and she achieved her wish.

When the floor was open to all-comers, Kiwis, Hong Kongers and a man offering support from the Tibetan cause were among those to speak. All the while there was an expectation someone whose pro-China pride might have been pricked by the rally and its sentiments might grab the microphone or otherwise cause a disruption.

About 250 people gave up part of their lunchtimes to attend, their attention rivalled - in a bitter wind in the shade of the Quad - by the queue gathering right next door outside the Gong Cha food window.

The first of the speakers from China, a middle-aged woman, said Hong Kong's future was important for China as well as Hong Kong itself. "Hong Kong is the only place that we get to know the truth about China," she said. "Every country wants business with China ... you should be defending Hong Kong."

A man from China in his 30s, wearing a large black cloth mask and a baseball cap pulled low, was next. "Why do I wear the mask?" he asked the crowd."Why? Because we are full of fear. I support what you feel. The freedom is the highest value. The demonstrations are so important because freedom of speech, of religion, in China we do not have them.

"You can be put in jail because you speak some things that you do not like," he said, voice faint. "You should fight to the end for your freedom of speech, to choose your own life style."

One of the last people to take the microphone was a woman in her 20s from China. "We are all here because we support the freedom of speech. Well, we need please to listen to what the other side are trying to say.

"It is not just one country and media or news that you see. I can see news saying police in Hong Kong are violent towards the [people]. But I also see news that people who started protests in Hong Kong are turning to violence against their own people. I do not think that there is any absolute truth to anything you see on the news.

"We do not want any violence," she said, "but want everyone to think critically and communicate peacefully".

The event passed peacefully, with no call on the half dozen or so police and a group of university security guards. 

But there was a sniff of tension throughout, given what has happened in other centres like at the University of Queensland where competing groups chanted and moved towards each other.

And both Seymour, the Epsom MP, and Lee, one of the event organisers, spoke of the personal criticism they had endured from opponents. Seymour said he was aware people from mainland China living in his electorate felt he ought not to speak out against China in regard to the university fracas last week and another intervention by the Chinese consulate over an AUT event cancellation.

Serena Lee speaks to media after the rally. Photo: Tim Murphy

Lee had received death threats against herself and her family and many messages questioning her right to speak out about the happenings in Hong Kong. These had been referred to police, with the original assault complaint from the Lennon Wall incident. She accepted her stand in Auckland could have implications for her in the future if travelling to Hong Kong or beyond. "But as the university has said that it upholds academic freedom and freedom of speech, I feel that the university is a place where I can feel safe."

The rally was held to show solidarity with Hong Kong but also to raise awareness in New Zealand of what was at stake in the territory. 

Organisers had advised anyone with concerns about being identified in the crowd to wear masks, particularly if they planned to travel in the future back to Hong Kong. "Showing support here in New Zealand they are exposed to the authorities in Hong Kong or in China and this may carry potential charges if they carry our event [on TV] in Hong Kong and they will be easily spotted.

"As a New Zealander this is not just a Hong Kong-China issue, it is also related internationally, and we will be affected."

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