Foreign Affairs

NZ toughens stance on Hong Kong’s new security law

NZ finally joins its Five Eyes partners in strongly opposing Hong Kong's new national security law. While the Government reviews its relationship with Hong Kong (and quietly shifts on China) pro-CCP leaders in NZ praise the far-reaching legislation, Laura Walters reports

The Government is gearing up to overhaul its relationship with Hong Kong following the passing of a widely condemned national security law, which will crack down on citizens’ rights and breach the 'one country, two systems' arrangement.

This stronger stance is part of what appears to be a quiet, but consistent, shift in this Government's approach to China.

On June 30, Beijing imposed the wide-reaching national security law on Hong Kong, which many fear could be used to override the existing legal processes and erode the special administrative region’s civil and political freedoms.

The law was drafted behind closed doors by the National People’s Congress in Beijing, bypassing Hong Kong’s elected legislative council. 

The law, largely a response to the city’s ongoing pro-democracy protests that began last year, dramatically broadens Beijing’s powers to investigate, prosecute and punish suspected criminals in Hong Kong.

It criminalises secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign powers. Those convicted could face life in prison. And it opens the door for prosecution of foreigners through article 38, which says the law also applies to those outside Hong Kong, and those who were not permanent residents in Hong Kong (essentially outlawing global activism).

Under the new law, the Chinese central government will also establish its own law enforcement presence in Hong Kong.

Within a day of the law coming into effect, hundreds of Hong Kong protestors were arrested.

In recent months, the New Zealand Government has been criticised for its tepid response to the imminent law change - particularly in comparison to responses from its Five Eyes partners.

After the law passed, New Zealand was notably absent from a joint statement issued by Australia, the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada, which said: “China’s decision to impose a new national security law on Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally-binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration.”

Instead Foreign Minister Winston Peters issued his own statement, expressing “deep disappointment” and “serious concern”.

With 26 other countries, New Zealand signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council, again expressing “deep concern” about China’s activities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

“China’s decision to pass a new national security law for Hong Kong has fundamentally changed the environment for international engagement there."

Then on Thursday, following a conference call with its Five Eyes partners, the Government changed its language and issued a stronger statement saying it was reviewing the settings of its relationship with Hong Kong.

“China’s decision to pass a new national security law for Hong Kong has fundamentally changed the environment for international engagement there,” Peters said. 

“New Zealand remains deeply concerned at the imposition of this legislation on Hong Kong.”

He said Government officials would conduct a “deliberate, considered review” of all New Zealand’s policy settings, including extradition arrangements, controls on exports of strategic goods, and travel advice.  

“New Zealand shares the international community’s significant and longstanding stake in Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. We will continue to monitor the law’s impact on the people of Hong Kong, with whom we share close links."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade also updated its travel advice, saying the new security legislation could be interpreted broadly, “leading to increased risk of arrest and prosecution on national security grounds for a wide range of activity, including protest activity”.

In response to the Government’s comments, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Wellington said the Chinese Government was determined to fully and faithfully implement the policies of "one country, two systems".

As is China’s usual response to any criticism or concern raised by foreign governments regarding China matters, the spokesperson said “we firmly oppose any external interference in Hong Kong affairs”, and suggested the Government "do more to promote the sound and steady development of the China-New Zealand relations".

“We will completely oppose those with the ambitions to destroy us."

But while the Government joined its anglophone partners in clear opposition to Beijing’s law in Hong Kong, some Chinese community leaders in New Zealand have hailed the new law.

A collection of New Zealand branches of pro-Chinese Communist Party organisations convened a remote seminar to mark the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China from British rule, and celebrate the implementation of the national security law.

In an article published by Chinese-language media outlet SkyKiwi, the New Zealand heads of the organisations praised the new law and blamed unrest in Hong Kong on foreign forces, which they said were financially backing pro-democracy protests.

Victoria University of Wellington Asian Studies lecturer Catherine Churchman translated some of the leaders’ comments on Twitter.

Zhu Xi, president of New Zealand Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China, said the legislation would curb and root out terrorist activities for secession and subversion made in collusion with foreign forces.

While the head of New Zealand Huaxing Arts Troupe Li Fen (Fiona Li) said the law was “extremely timely, extremely correct” and said “we firmly support it”.

New Zealand Overseas Chinese Culture & Art Centre chair Zhou Xiaowen (Wendy Zhou) said the passing of the law was “a great happy event for all Chinese people of the world, not just those in Hong Kong”.

And Yuan Juanren, president of the Auckland Association for the Peaceful Reunification of China, said he blamed the United States for unrest in Hong Kong. “We will completely oppose those with the ambitions to destroy us,” he said.

Meanwhile, Guo Hong, president of the United Chinese Association of New Zealand blamed “lawless elements and dark forces" for the unrest.

“I find Chinese I meet tend to be more resigned and cynical about politics of any shade.”

Deng Shunmei, chair of the New Zealand Chinese Traditional Arts Centre, said her members were “happy from the bottom of our hearts”. 

And Gao Hejun, president of Wellington Association for the Peaceful Unification of China said: “Implementing the law in Hong Kong is an attack on a small group of splitist Hong Kong independence elements… and has painfully stabbed and shattered the ravenous ambitions of the Western Anti-China forces led by the US to split China.”

Others made similar statements about the importance of the law, how it would stamp out ‘terrorist’ activities of a small group of people, and keep the majority safe.  The leaders also made comments about foreign powers meddling in the affairs of Hong Kong and China.

Churchman said the responses from pro-CCP leaders appeared to be from a list of provided talking points.

While these comments did not represent the diverse views of different Chinese communities in New Zealand, these were the types of people and viewpoints that often garnered the most attention in the media, she said.

Much of New Zealand’s Chinese-language media takes an extremely pro-CCP viewpoint, which was not representative of the views of most of the country’s ethnic Chinese, she said.

“I find Chinese I meet tend to be more resigned and cynical about politics of any shade.”

And the support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement was shown by protests across New Zealand last year.

“If New Zealand always chooses not to react in the interests of maintaining high levels of trade with China, we are only going to find ourselves in a more difficult position when we have to speak up about something that affects us more directly."

New Zealand’s review of its relationship with Hong Kong comes as it tries to navigate a changing China under Xi Jinping. Particularly in a post-Covid world, where the superpower is increasingly happy to retaliate by denying trade, tourism and students.

As University of Canterbury China expert Anne-Marie Brady wrote in a recent article published by The Diplomat, New Zealand has avoided taking the same path as partners like Australia and United States, dismissing this as ‘megaphone diplomacy’.

In some cases, New Zealand has demurred from joining its Five Eyes partners in publicly condemning China. And as a result the Government has been questioned over its stance on human rights issues.

But in recent months, the Government's relationship with China has undergone a quiet shift.

Last year, the Government joined others in condemning human rights abuses against Uighur in Xinjiang, after previously refusing to speak publicly about the issue. Then the prime minister, foreign minister and education minister all publicly opposed the Chinese state’s attempts to stop pro-democracy demonstrations on a New Zealand University campus.

Since then, Jacinda Ardern has spoken about plans to diversify New Zealand exports from the China market. And Trade Minister David Parker announced a post-Covid long term trade recovery strategy, highlighting market opportunities in the EU, UK and South America. Parker also changed the Overseas Investment Act in an effort to protect sensitive assets, such as businesses with civil-military implications.

This Government’s response to China has been somewhat piecemeal - dealing with issues on a case-by-case basis.

Brady wrote that Ardern’s Government used ambiguous tactics to deter an increasingly aggressive partner.

And the Government would likely have carried on this way had it not been for the opportunity to re-adjust its foreign and trade policy, presented by Covid-19.

Churchman said the Government should not be afraid to speak against China, when the situation required strong, public opposition.

“If New Zealand always chooses not to react in the interests of maintaining high levels of trade with China, we are only going to find ourselves in a more difficult position when we have to speak up about something that affects us more directly."

It was clear the People’s Republic of China was not shy about using the denial of trade, student and tourist dollars as a weapon against those who criticised it. Therefore, a diversification of trading partners was necessary to protect the economic interests of the country.

It appears the Government has been slowly working towards this, with trade agreements with the EU and UK coming to fruition.

Churchman said there were also other Asian countries to trade with. And while they may not have the best human rights records, they were not so sensitive to every perceived sleight - something Chinese refer to as having a “heart of glass”.

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