World

United States belts Victoria over Beijing ties. Deal to broadcast Australian television content across the Pacific. China’s national security law reignites Hong Kong protests. Boris Johnson’s chief adviser keeps job despite lockdown trip. By Jonathan Pearlman.

Beijing security laws reignite HK protests

People Power lawmaker Raymond Chan Chi-chuen is taken away by security as he protests during the Legislative Council’s house committee meeting in Hong Kong last week.
Credit: REUTERS / Tyrone Siu

GREAT POWER RIVALRY

United States: Last weekend, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who has led the White House’s recent attacks on China, caused a diplomatic stir by threatening to end intelligence links with Australia over ties between Victoria and Beijing.

During a friendly interview with Australia’s Sky News, Pompeo was asked about Victoria’s involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s world-spanning infrastructure-building scheme. He said Victorian projects with China could potentially jeopardise intelligence-sharing between America and partners such as Australia.

“To the extent [projects] have an adverse impact on our ability to protect telecommunications from our private citizens, or security networks for our defence and intelligence communities – we will simply disconnect, we will simply separate,” he said.

The warning was severe, particularly as Australia infuriated China two years ago by becoming the first country in the world to announce a blanket ban on Chinese firm Huawei taking part in its 5G network.

Hours after the interview, the US ambassador, Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr, intervened, releasing a statement to “set the record straight”. He confirmed the US had confidence in Australia’s telecommunications security, saying Pompeo was responding to a “very remote hypothetical”.

“We are not aware that Victoria has engaged in any concrete projects under BRI, let alone projects impinging on telecommunications networks, which we understand are a federal matter,” the statement said.

Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, has come under attack over his decision to join the BRI. After Pompeo’s interview, Scott Morrison urged Andrews to “recognise the role of the federal government in setting foreign policy”.

Actually, states regularly participate in foreign affairs and trade. Some have foreign trade offices or commissioners, and premiers regularly make official visits overseas. Andrews defended Victoria’s involvement in the BRI, saying it will provide jobs and economic opportunities. But critics fear the BRI will increase China’s global influence and could make developed countries dependent on it.

This debate, which reflects broader anxieties in Australia – and the US – about China’s clout, is unlikely to end soon.

THE NEIGHBOURHOOD

Australia: Australia has reached a long-awaited deal to broadcast television content across the Pacific as part of efforts to improve ties with its island neighbours and counter China’s growing regional influence.

The three-year deal, announced by the government on Monday, will give $17 million to Australia’s commercial networks to air programs such as Neighbours, MasterChef and Border Security. Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands and Fiji will be the first countries to receive the content, followed by Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru. But the move raised concerns about the relevance of these programs to Pacific audiences and the failure to involve Pacific communities in developing content.

The Australia Asia Pacific Media Initiative (AAPMI), which has been calling for Australia to improve its regional broadcasting services, said Australia needs to “talk ‘with’ and not ‘to’ the region”.

“Watching rich white people renovate their homes will not ‘deepen the connection’ with the Pacific or overcome perceptions that Australia can be paternalistic,” said Jemima Garrett, from the AAPMI. “Nor will providing Border Security in a region in which visa access is a sore point.” The move follows years of cuts by Australia to its international broadcasting services.

In 2014, Tony Abbott, Australia’s then prime minister, withdrew funding from the ABC’s Australia Network, which broadcast television across Asia and the Pacific. Three years later, the ABC stopped broadcasting its international radio service on shortwave in the Pacific. The frequencies have since been taken over by China Radio International.

DEMOCRACY IN RETREAT

Hong Kong: On Thursday, China passed a controversial national security law for Hong Kong that extends Beijing’s control over the territory and threatens to undermine the “one country, two systems” formula that grants it relative autonomy.

A previous attempt to introduce such laws in 2003 sparked mass protests that eventually prompted the city’s chief executive to withdraw the bill. This time, the law was passed in Beijing, where the parliament supported it by a vote of 2878 to 1. The move has sparked the first mass protests since last year’s pro-democracy demonstrations and caused further tensions between Beijing and Washington.

China is expected to use the laws to clamp down on the pro-democracy campaign, which erupted last year to oppose a plan to allow extraditions to mainland China. The laws are ostensibly designed to prevent conduct that involves secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference, but would likely be used to curb pro-democracy activity. They would also allow Beijing to set up security agencies in Hong Kong.

Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy legislator, said China was reneging on the promises it made to the people of Hong Kong when the former British colony was handed back to China in 1997. “I just want to say to the international community that this is the end of Hong Kong, this is the end of ‘one country, two systems’,” he said.

The White House said it planned to take punitive action against China over the law, which it described as a “death knell” for Hong Kong’s autonomy.

On Wednesday, protesters in Hong Kong gathered to oppose a separate new law that bans disrespect for China’s national anthem and requires it to be sung in schools. Those who insult the anthem, such as by changing the lyrics, would face jail sentences of up to three years.

SPOTLIGHT: Cummings’ drive

Britain: Dominic Cummings – or Boris Johnson’s Rasputin, as he is often described – is a wily political operative who worked behind the scenes to campaign for the successful Leave vote in the Brexit referendum and later, as Johnson’s chief adviser, lured the opposition into an early election, which the Conservatives won in a landslide.

This week, Cummings was forced to emerge from the shadows to explain why he breached Britain’s lockdown restrictions and drove his wife and son more than 400 kilometres from London to his parents’ home in Durham.

At a press conference in the garden at 10 Downing Street, Cummings declared that he would not resign or apologise. His wife, he pleaded, had coronavirus symptoms and they feared they would not be able to care for their four-year-old son. But he was also forced to explain a separate 100-kilometre trip that the family took on April 12 –his wife’s birthday – from Durham to Barnard Castle, a small town named after its mediaeval castle. This journey, he said, occurred after he had recovered from coronavirus, and was taken because his eyesight had been affected and he wanted to see if he could drive safely.

“I wasn’t sightseeing,” he said.

Unlike almost everyone else in Britain, Johnson defended Cummings, who has been so central to the prime minister’s fortunes. Johnson said his adviser had “followed the instincts of every father and every parent and I do not mark him down for that”. A poll indicated the saga has led to a 20-percentage-point drop in Johnson’s approval ratings. As of Friday, Britain had recorded 37,919 Covid-19 deaths.

On Tuesday, Douglas Ross, a junior minister, resigned, saying the majority of Britons did not accept Cummings’ conduct. “I have constituents who didn’t get to say goodbye to loved ones … people who didn’t visit sick relatives because they followed the guidance of the government,” he said.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2020 as "Beijing security laws reignite HK protests".

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Jonathan Pearlman
is The Saturday Paper’s world editor and the editor of Australian Foreign Affairs.

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