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The New Zealand has again refrained from joining the other four members of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing alliance in condemning China’s latest efforts to stifle pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, with Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta instead expressing her concerns separately.
This appears to be part of an effort by New Zealand to distance itself from the other members of the alliance, all of whom have become embroiled in messy diplomatic disputes with China that have had significant economic consequences.
“New Zealand has serious concerns about the situation in Hong Kong. Sometimes we will comment on events with partners who share our concerns,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in a statement yesterday.
The United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia issued a joint statement Sunday expressing “serious concern” about the arrest of 55 democracy advocates, including prominent activist Joshua Wong, and supporters in Hong Kong last week.
It was the largest crackdown since China imposed a controversial National Security Law on Hong Kong in June, a move that was widely seen as an effort to criminalise protest and freedom of speech, and strengthen Beijing’s control over the nominally semi-autonomous territory.
The National Security Law “has curtailed the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong,” the statement from the four allies said, adding that it was clearly being used “to eliminate dissent and opposing political views”.
“We call on the Hong Kong and Chinese central authorities to respect the legally guaranteed rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong without fear of arrest and detention,” the statement said.
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Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta tweeted concern about the Hong Kong arrests last week.
But New Zealand concern did not sign up to the joint statement, continuing a pattern of sometimes joining forces but other times not. Instead, Mahuta issued her own statement on Twitter last week.
“Aotearoa New Zealand is deeply concerned by the recent arrest of a number of pro-democracy advocates in #HongKong,” she wrote. “This represents another effort to erode the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong and further undermine the one country two systems framework.”
Jason Young, a Victoria University expert on Chinese politico-economic and institutional reform, said New Zealand’s decision to go solo with its criticism could be seen as more “forceful”, as it could not be perceived as bowing to the pressure of larger Five Eyes partners.
The choice to go solo had precedent, he said. “I would suggest it is really important New Zealand and other countries issue statements on these types of issues.”
Victoria University China expert Jason Young says New Zealand’s solo criticism of the Hong Kong arrests could be seen as more forceful that a group effort.
New Zealand has been trying to stake out its own ground in dealing with China, its single largest export market, and also with the United States under an increasingly belligerent President Donald Trump.
The United States under Trump has been locked in a damaging trade war that has taken on a political dimension. The other three members of the Five Eyes alliance – the United Kingdom, Canada and, most recently, Australia – have also suffered economic repercussions after criticising China, and are viewed in Beijing as being at Washington’s beck and call.
Former Democratic Party legislators Andrew Wan, left, Lam Cheuk-ting, second left, and Helena Wong, right, attend a press conference after being released on bail in Hong Kong on Friday.
Under President Xi Jinping, China has steadily eroded the freedoms that Hong Kong is meant to enjoy until 2047, under the 1997 handover agreement between China and the U.K. But it has dramatically stepped up its efforts to control the territory since the latest round of pro-democracy protests in 2019.
The Hong Kong government, which is now stacked with pro-Beijing lawmakers, condemned the statement from the four countries. “We are appalled by remarks made by some overseas government officials that seemed to suggest that people with certain political beliefs should be immune to legal sanctions,” it said.
Most of those arrested last week had taken part in an unofficial primary for a legislative election that was later postponed. Authorities allege the primary was part of a plot to take control of the legislature in order to paralyse government and force the city’s leader to resign.
The 55 have not been charged, and all but three have been released on bail pending further investigation. Convictions could disqualify them from running for office.