Dave Sharma, Liberal MP and chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (Image: AAP/Dean Lewins)

The Australian parliament appears ready for a bipartisan ratification of a so-called free trade agreement (FTA) with Hong Kong’s widely discredited administration. But why are they even bothering? This is a deal with a city/state that is already one of the world’s most mobile, liberal trading economies.

Inking a deal with an administration that is subjugated to Beijing is the latest misstep by a government that has no idea how to deal with China.

Hong Kong’s human rights crisis

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s government has presided over a potentially terminal weakening of the “one country, two systems” principle. The Lam administration further exacerbated this decline with an attempt to introduce an extradition bill that would, in effect, allow mainland Chinese authorities to shuffle anyone they wanted into the black hole of the Chinese legal system.

The People’s Republic of China has had a creeping and well-documented influence in Hong Kong since the territory was handed back by the United Kingdom in 1997. This trend has accelerated in recent years, and was one of the main drivers behind the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests that saw part of central Hong Kong occupied peacefully.

Lam’s extradition bill triggered the most recent crisis, which has seen street protests roil the city for the past 19 weeks. The Hong Kong government’s response to protests has convinced a substantial portion of the population that “one country, two systems” is not in effect; that their government does not serve the Hong Kong people; and that their police force has become a tool of political enforcement rather than rule-of-law enforcement.

Yet Australia’s politicians remain unconvinced — at least when it comes to trade.

Joshua Wong — the 22-year-old leader of Hong Kong political party Demosisto, who rose to fame as the face of the Umbrella Movement — has urged Australian parliament to reject any FTA with Hong Kong without human rights clauses. It has been clear for decades that trade cannot be divorced from human rights. Think of child and slave labour, and the extreme working conditions in developing world manufacturing premises. The US government recently banned 28 Chinese companies from selling to the US because they were understood to be manufacturing goods in Muslim Uighur concentration camps.

Unions and other groups have also opposed the Hong Kong FTA deal both on human rights grounds and for the inclusion of controversial investor-state dispute clauses (ISDC) which allow foreign companies to sue the Australian government. Think of when tobacco giant Philip Morris (unsuccessfully) sued the Australian government over plain cigarette packaging in 2015.

Mixed messages

Dave Sharma, Liberal MP and chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Treaties (JSCOT), has said: “While being mindful of the current political instability in Hong Kong, I think the FTA can reaffirm Hong Kong’s unique status within ‘one country, two systems’ and reaffirm its unique constitutional arrangements.”

It’s hard to imagine just what planet he is living on.

Labor’s apparent capitulation on the trade treaty was easier to see coming. It has been trying to carve out a less aggressive stance towards China, which both flies in the face of the reality and voter sympathies toward Hong Kong protesters. Opposition spokesperson Richard Marles visited China in September but, no doubt fearful of upsetting his hosts, he failed to raise the case of detained Australian author Yang Hengjun, kidnapped by Chinese authorities in Guangzhou nine months ago.

Still, Labor MP and JSCOT deputy Peter Khalil held the door open: “If the ongoing political and security instability in Hong Kong leads by degrees to the diminution of its unique autonomous status … that, in my personal view, would be cause for the government to reconsider the timeline for ratification.”

In a rare moment of clarity, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton put the case against China last week: “Our issue, as I’ve said before, is not with the Chinese people, not with the amazing Chinese diaspora community that we have here in Australia. My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they’re inconsistent with our own values.”

He is right. But why isn’t his government following this line? Australia’s ratification of a trade deal with Hong Kong will lend support and legitimacy to an administration that has trashed “one country, two systems” and is clearly controlled by a increasingly thuggish government in Beijing.

Peter Fray

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