(Image: AAP/Mick Tsikas)

The government’s twin decisions to suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and to offer de facto permanent residency to Hong Kong citizens already here, is that rare thing — the right moral, economic and foreign policy call.

Its position on future opportunities for Hongkongers to flee China’s tyranny, however, is tone deaf and over-thought.

The government’s preferred explanation for its decisions yesterday is that China’s imposition of a draconian “national security law” on Hong Kong “constitutes a fundamental change of circumstances”.

Scott Morrison declined yesterday to go further than those words, but the message is clear: Australia no longer regards Hong Kong as, in any meaningful way, separate from China.

That has immediate ramifications for our existing extradition treaty with Hong Kong, finalised in 2007. The government attempted to sneak through an extradition treaty with China itself in 2017, only for Labor and backbenchers to force it to back down, on the sensible basis that China has no rule of law, routinely prosecutes critics and dissidents, tortures people, has a 99.9% conviction rate and still uses the death penalty.

Now that Hong Kong is indistinguishable from China, and China will have no qualms in extraditing or even abducting people from Hong Kong to the mainland, it is untenable for Australia to send anyone there.

There are nearly 20 countries — mainly in North America, western European and south-east Asia — that have treaties with Hong Kong. Canada has already suspended its treaty; Germany placed its under review last year.

Australia has also provided immediate relief for just under 10,000 Hong Kong students, graduates and workers temporarily in Australia, who can now remain for five years beyond their existing visas should they want to, and can apply for permanent residency at the end of that period.

There are another 2500 such people currently outside Australia, and just over 1000 people with applications in the system. Australia will not be forcing anyone in Australia from Hong Kong to return there, meaning students who have taken advantage of Australia’s relative freedom to criticise China can avoid returning to likely arrest.

That’s also open to future students and temporary workers from the territory, not just those currently here — whenever Australia reopens its borders.

It’s worth noting that the Greens urged this step last year, only for the government to reject it. And Labor correctly points out that it’s not clear if family reunion will be available to those people, enabling them to bring their families to Australia. It’s a core part of the Chinese regime’s intimidation tactics in countries like Australia to threaten the families back in China of critics or others who displease it but who are legally beyond its reach.

But the government isn’t opening Australia to the 40% of Hongkongers who have considered leaving the territory. Unless they can apply under the existing student or temporary worker visa categories, or seek a humanitarian visa, the only way they can come to Australia is if they are what the government calls Super Talented.

This was Alan Tudge, the acting immigration minister yesterday:

“Now, in relation to, you know, what I call the super talent, of which there are many in Hong Kong, we started the Global Talent Scheme Visa not that long ago … we’ll be prioritising applicants from Hong Kong for that scheme and providing some additional resources there as well to target those particular individuals who are real job-multiplying people, who create businesses, who are entrepreneurs, who have that tech talent that the world is looking for, frankly.”

Tudge went on to refer to global businesses that “we want them to look to Australia, to come to, and set up shop” instead of remaining in Hong Kong. In fact, Tudge went on about “talent” and “super talent” and businesses so much that the moment he finished, Morrison immediately added “the refugee and humanitarian stream remains available for those who are seeking to apply”.

In doing so, Morrison betrayed his awareness of how tone deaf this must have looked: the government declares that a “fundamental change” has occurred in Hong Kong sufficient that it no longer wants to send anyone back there, but turns it into an ad for “super talent” to come to Australia and a pitch for businesses. From human rights to a “Make Australia Your Next HQ” roadshow in the space of a few minutes.

Hongkongers are indeed talented. They’re ideal immigrants; the Hong Kong diaspora in Australia earns more, is better educated and has a higher workforce participation rate than the general Australian community. The Hong Kong students and temporary workers who elect to remain here, or who come in the future, will benefit Australia’s economy. But the government’s evident desire to cherrypick talent sits poorly with its expressed concern about the “fundamental change”.

It also strengthens the hand of those who would argue that the government’s abominable, criminal treatment of detained maritime arrivals in offshore detention, and its refusal to extend help to prominent Muslim refugee groups around the world, reflects an intrinsic hostility to refugees. In fact the government accepted over 17,000 people under the humanitarian visa program in 2018-19 — far short of what a rich country should accept, but significantly more than the 13,000-14,000 places that was standard for many years and far more than many other western countries.

The announcement, unsurprisingly, sent the Chinese dictatorship into a rage about Australia breaching international norms and laws. But given the regime has already trashed relations with Australia, the government has nothing to lose on that score. The government is free to act at the moment without worrying too much about upsetting Beijing.

Has the government done enough to help the people of Hong Kong? Let us know your thoughts by writing to [email protected]. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

Peter Fray

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