Pro-China protesters gesture towards Hong Kong democracy demonstrators in Melbourne (Image: AAP/Erik Anderson)

Last weekend, around the globe, supporters of the people of Hong Kong took to the streets. Millions joined the protest against the accelerating influence of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). And, as some rallies turned violent, two things have become clear. 

The first: the warnings about the insidious influence of the CCP in other countries by academics, journalists and others who have studied the Chinese government — but who have often been dismissed as fear-mongers — are proving to be fact.

Australia has been used as something of a dress rehearsal for a program of so-called sharp power now being rolled out around the West by the CCP. The Australian government is, at last, sitting up and taking notice. This has been helped along in no small way by the aggressive statements of China’s Australian envoy Cheng Jingye.

“The recent demonstrations in Hong Kong have turned into radical, violent and illegal behaviours, which have gone far beyond freedom of assembly, demonstration and protest,” he said. “The intention of certain extreme radicals is to mess up Hong Kong and undermine ‘One Country, Two Systems’ under the cover of so-called ‘pro-democracy’ movement. Their behaviors have grossly trampled on the rule of law and social order in Hong Kong, seriously threatened the local residents’ life and safety, severely jeopardised Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. No responsible government would sit idly by.”

This was part of a script being parroted by his colleagues in other capitals of the West.

Canberra has, on face value anyhow, increasingly little to lose in standing up against this. Australia is on Beijing’s radar in a major way following the sensational banning of Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies from any of Australia’s 5G mobile networks in 2018. Canberra has been making increasingly bold critiques of Beijing for its military adventurism in the South China Sea and calling for calm in Hong Kong (which was seen as interference in domestic affairs by Beijing). Perhaps even worse in Beijing’s eyes: the recent love-fest between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Scott Morrison, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne and Defence Minister Linda Reynolds.

And if there was any doubt about just how far and deep the influence of the CCP goes: look to the increasingly powerful United Front Work Department (UFWD). Through myriad “associations” generally using benign names such as “friendship” and “promotion” groups, the UFWD co-opts its citizens and Australian residents to help the motherland in the shadows of their adopted country.

The spectre of the UFWD was writ large last Saturday in Melbourne and Adelaide when pro-Beijing groups upended significant marches in favour of Hong Kong (although a major rally in Sydney proceeded with relatively little trouble).

The influence of the UFWD has been on display in recent weeks in a growing number of Australian universities. Pro-Beijing students have formed counter-protests in a range of institutions including University of Queensland, Monash and  University of Tasmania. Earlier this month the University of Technology Sydney posted two security guards at the “Lennon Wall” — officially re-branded by UTS as a “poster wall” — after the pro-democracy and pro-One China protesters were found vandalising each other’s posters.

The violence that is being fomented by pro-Beijing campus groups is presenting Australia’s universities with a dilemma: do they report the students to police and/or expel or suspend them? 

This would surely risk reprisals from Beijing, which has already issued safety warnings to students about Australia. Further action in advising or even blocking the way for Chinese students to study in Australia would hit the Australian tertiary sector particular hard — and for certain universities over-reliant on Chinese student fees even harder.

China has already shown it is willing to play ducks and drakes with Australian trade; coal tankers have been put in the slow lane for unloading at a range of northern Chinese ports, and there’s been a cut-back on Australian barley imports. China has good reason to be hysterical about the snowballing international opprobrium over the situation in Hong Kong. And blaming the peaceful street protests by not just disaffected students but a wide cross-section of regular Hong Kong society on the “black hand” of the United States and other undesirable democratic element is certainly that.

And this is the second thing that has emerged from the mess in Hong Kong: the power of the people of Hong Kong. They have achieved what human rights groups and journalists have previously failed to do. Through their protests, the Hongkongese have opened the eyes of regular people around the world to the dark underbelly of the Chinese regime. Most importantly, they’ve garnered popular interest and international support against it.

For this they are due our thanks and continuing support.

Peter Fray

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