Morrison’s embassy misstep; aftermath of Khashoggi murder; PNG’s APEC spending. By Hamish McDonald.

China lashes out as HK club oversteps ‘red line’

Andy Chan (centre), founder of the Hong Kong National Party, is surrounded by media as he leaves the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong in August.
Andy Chan (centre), founder of the Hong Kong National Party, is surrounded by media as he leaves the Foreign Correspondents’ Club in Hong Kong in August.
Credit: Philip Fong / AFP / Getty Images

The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong has seen many excesses, but has been told it crossed a “red line” when it recently held a discussion with the young activist Andy Chan, who advocates independence for the one-time British colony and present-day Chinese special autonomous region.

The club’s vice-president who chaired the event, Victor Mallet, Asia news editor of London’s Financial Times, has had his work visa withdrawn and was given seven days to leave. It remains unclear whether the club’s lease on its handy government-owned heritage building in Ice House Street will continue.

“The red line has been clearly drawn,” the local edition of Beijing’s China Daily editorialised. “It is there not only for Hong Kong residents to observe, but also for expatriates residing or working here. Foreign correspondents enjoy all the freedoms everybody else does here, but they are also subject to the legal restraints everybody else has to be subject to. Whoever crosses that red line has to bear the consequences.”

Chan’s tiny Hong Kong National Party was banned on security grounds last month, the first ban on a political party since the transfer from British rule in 1997. Beijing has been losing the trust of Hong Kong’s people by refusing to allow them to choose their government. After 20 years, the promise of 50 years of a high-degree of autonomy is being pulled back.

Morrison muddle

The South-East Asian region that Canberra insists is crucial to our future was appalled by Scott Morrison’s announced “discussion” of moving Australia’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and withdrawing support from the Iran nuclear agreement.

Indonesia’s foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, called in Australian ambassador Gary Quinlan for an explanation, and told Australian counterpart Marise Payne an embassy switch would “slap Indonesia’s face”. Marsudi’s president, Joko Widodo, learned about it in a WhatsApp message from Morrison. While the Indonesian trade minister said free-trade negotiations with Canberra would not be derailed, that could change, with Widodo out to placate Muslim groups ahead of next May’s elections.

Former ambassador to Jakarta and Washington John McCarthy warned it would affect Australia’s relations with Indonesia and Malaysia, and through them the region. “Following the Trump decision there were widespread and lengthy demonstrations in both these countries and it would be surprising if our decision did not resonate as badly,” McCarthy said.

PM’s olive branch

Canberra’s foreign policy mandarins seem to have corrected the government’s balance in one other recent instance. On October 4, Scott Morrison spoke at a Chinese community lunch in Sydney’s Hurstville where he stressed the importance of a “mutually beneficial relationship” with China “based on our shared values and mutual respect” and praised the contributions of Chinese immigrants.

Anthony Pun, president of the Chinese Community Council of Australia, said this could help soothe the “pain, stress and trauma” experienced by 1.2 million people of Chinese descent over the past 20 months. “Chinese Australians will not easily forget the two waves of xenophobia, one in the gold rush days and the recent China panic days,” Pun wrote in the Pearls and Irritations blog. But they would accept Morrison’s “olive branch”.

Morrison’s speech doesn’t seem to have been pushed by his office to the mainstream Australian media, where the Fu Manchu theme of Chinese infiltration is all the go. It got widely reported in the Chinese-language media here, and some favourable coverage in China after it was posted on the Australian embassy website in Beijing.

Oiling the wheels

Sometimes the fate of one man moves the world in ways that much larger atrocities do not. Take the case of Jamal Khashoggi, the exiled Saudi writer murdered inside his country’s Istanbul consulate, and the Saudi war in Yemen, which has seen school buses blasted from the air and the United Nations warning this week that 13 million people face starvation.

It’s because Khashoggi’s death on October 2 was so gruesome, and planned. The Saudis knew he was coming – he’d made an appointment to get certificates ahead of his remarriage. According to Turkish leaks of an audio file – either bugging or Khashoggi’s iWatch – a 15-strong hit team grabbed him inside the consulate, cut off his fingers in a short interrogation, then beheaded and dismembered him. The consul-general was told to shut up, if he wanted to stay alive when back in Riyadh.

This week, the House of Saud and its friends tried to wind back the story. It might have been the work of “rogue killers”, said Donald Trump. “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent,” the US president said. “I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice [Brett] Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.”

Reports suggested Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, who along with King Salman had denied all knowledge of any operation against Khashoggi, was preparing a fallback story that it was just an attempt to interrogate the critic and maybe bring him back to the kingdom, and that it just got out of hand.

All very well, except that the hit team flew into Istanbul aboard executive jets chartered from a company linked to the royal house, and included at least four security agents known to be the crown prince’s bodyguards and frequent travel companions. It also included the kingdom’s top forensic specialist, Salah Muhammed al-Tubaigy, an expert on dissections and autopsies working for the Interior Ministry, who happened to bring along his bone saw. (The good doctor , who polished his skills in 2015 at Melbourne’s Institute of Forensic Medicine, allegedly played soothing music on his headphones as he cut up Khassoggi.)

Depending on how the Turks play it – their teams found signs of a quick paint job inside the consulate – the Saudis will no doubt get away with it, as they have with the earlier excesses of MBS, such as his shakedown of Saudi tycoons locked up in Riyadh’s Ritz-Carlton, the random bombing in Yemen, and the absurd withdrawal of 8000 Saudi students and numerous hospital patients from Canada over some mild human rights diplomacy.

Trump went to Riyadh last year on his first foreign trip as president and came away with $US110 billion in arms deals. He needs the Saudis to help keep oil prices down, and go along with son-in-law Jared Kushner’s plans for an Israel–Palestinian settlement. The business names who’ve been withdrawing from the MBS “Davos in the Desert” investment conference next week will be creeping back.

APEC torques

Australia has allocated about $100 million to Papua New Guinea to help it host the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit for the first time in Port Moresby next month. Our special forces are being deployed, cruise ships chartered to house the delegates, warships assigned to protect them from terrorists.

So how is Peter O’Neill’s government spending the money? Nearly $9 million, it appears, will go on 40 Maseratis to whiz leaders around the capital. The high-performance luxury vehicles have been delivered by a special cargo plane. Reports said the fleet will be augmented by three Bentleys, the “Flying Spur” model costing $230,000 each.

It’s the work of PNG’s special minister for the APEC meeting, Australian-born Justin Tkatchenko, who turned his horticultural skills from a one-year TAFE course into a career as a gardening celebrity on television in PNG, winning controversial contracts to beautify Port Moresby, a work still in progress, before he entered parliament. Opposition MPs said the Maseratis seem to have been ordered through a car spare-parts dealer in Colombo, Sri Lanka, which recently invoiced the PNG government for $US6,357,684.

Not to worry. Local buyers are lining up to buy the cars after the summit and the government will get its money back, Tkatchenko assures. Who they might be, we do not know. Port Moresby is a place for defensive driving, darkened windows up and doors locked against raskol attacks, and rugged four-wheel drives more the go for driving on the few roads out of town. •

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 20, 2018 as "China lashes out as HK club oversteps ‘red line’".

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Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

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