China, Hong Kong & Australia’s Love of Authoritarianism

May 24, 2019

In relations with China, Australia’s support for human rights faces a demanding test. Human Rights Watch reports that in areas of free expression and political participation, oppression in Hong Kong has increased to the worst level since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

Hong Kong is sandwiched between different value systems. Hong Kong Basic Law guarantees respect for human rights, albeit under the One Country Two Systems agreement, formulated in 1980 by Deng Xiaoping. But President Xi Jinping demands that the Communist party should exercise leadership in every part of the country, including supposedly autonomous Hong Kong.

Chinese and Hong Kong leaders may be fascinated with authoritarianism but Australian politicians could also acknowledge abuses of power, such as Centrelink’s robot-debt pursuit of vulnerable citizens, the imprisonment of asylum seekers, conditions in juvenile detention centres and bullying in the offices of Federal politicians.

Even the design of the Department of Home Affairs has something in common with China’s gargantuan systems. To create Home Affairs, numerous departments were amalgamated into one operation: the Federal Police, ASIO, Australian Border Force, immigration, customs, counter terrorism, and emergency management, ruled over by Minister Peter Dutton and Secretary Mike Pezzullo.

Big Brother China v. Autonomous Hong Kong is a tug of war over freedom of speech, of the press and of association. The Hong Kong Independence Party has been outlawed. Activists for the movement ‘Occupy Central’ were given sentences of up to sixteen months in prison. Their alleged unlawful behaviour included holding press conferences, media interviews and public meetings in which they had discussed a non-violent direct-action campaign.

Mainland China intervenes in Hong Kong to silence critics. Hong Kong booksellers have disappeared to China then reappeared to say their disappearance had been voluntary, they had merely been helping authorities with investigations into a special case.

In 2015, Lam Wing-kee was among five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared. His Chinese interrogators wanted to know, ‘Who were your customers?’, ‘What did they buy?’, ‘How often did they come into your shop?’ Proposals for new Kong Kong extradition laws have made Lam fear for his safety and decide to migrate to Taiwan.

In response to extradition law proposals, Hong Kong citizens say there could never be a fair trial in Chinese courts. Their fears were confirmed when Hong Kong Secretary for Security John Lee admitted to discussions with his counterparts in China but said there was no need for public consultation in Hong Kong.

In what looks like re-run of Orwell’s 1984, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee has changed China’s criminal code to make abuse of the national anthem and the flag punishable by up to three years in prison. Anyone who does not stand still for the anthem or who behaves in other ‘distorted or disrespectful ways in public’ will be liable for such punishment. In January 2019 the Hong Kong government proposed the same measure.

The exercise of authority by Australia’s Secretary of Home Affairs Mike Pezzullo and by the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam have much in common.

Carrie Lam shows deference to hierarchies, concern with conformity and a desire to gain the approval of immediate bosses. As Director of Social Welfare she tightened the Social Security Scheme to make it available only to people who had lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years. This decision was echoed in Australia by Peter Dutton’s cruel requirement that permanent Australian residents applying for citizenship would in future have to wait for four years not one; and for temporary migrants the waiting time would be seven years.

Lam’s compliance with Beijing was evident in her refusal to renew the work visa of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallett who had chaired a meeting addressed by Andy Chan founder of the National Independence Party. to explain her refusal to renew Mallett’s visa, Lam said that all the information relating to her decision was secret. Sounding like Scott Morrison justifying secrecy in the military operation to turn back asylum seeker boats, K Lam said she trusted her bureaucracy and could not say more.

Principles such as people’s right to know or her own freedom to criticize were alien to her idea of effective government. She explained that there could be no explanation. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky warned that the world’s Carrie Lams would find freedom distasteful and would therefore surrender to more powerful others.

By advocating strict application of the law and harsh punishment for lawbreakers, Lam apparently expected to gain Beijing approval. Shakespeare had predicted such behaviour. In Measure for Measure he forecast that an individual (Angelo) who sought to consolidate power would always insist on respect for law however harsh. ‘We must not make an exception of the law, setting it up for birds of prey.’ In Hong Kong’s case, the birds of prey would include booksellers and the Orange Umbrella activists of the Occupy Central movement.

Australian proponents of order and control as the means of government include Home Affairs Secretary Mike Pezzullo. As the public servant responsible for the policy to deter asylum seekers Pezzullo developed a liking for military practices, as in his introduction of police style uniforms for the Australian Border Force. In what must have been a dark authoritarian mood, he concocted the idea that Australians could be targeted by the defence intelligence agency and the Federal Police could demand ID from people in airports.

Staff morale in Home Affairs dropped. A quarter of senior staff left the Department. They felt that Pezzullo had needlessly insulted their work and that of the Department. A former executive explained, ‘Pezzullo could have taken people with him. Instead he made many think they were hopeless and without value.’

In July 2018, Pezzullo sent a long winded sermon – his ‘general leadership philosophy’ – to his senior staff. He wrote, ‘I expect you to fully read this Blueprint for Home Affairs.’ His message included a threat. ‘I will use your demonstrated efforts to realise the Blueprint when assessing your performance and considering future opportunities for you in the Department.’

Pezzullo expressed his hopes for the right kind of staff moods. ‘I expect you to be authentically optimistic. ‘He advised, ‘Remain steely under pressure and especially in the midst of a crisis. Do not micromanage capable subordinates but do not hesitate to spring into action when decisive intervention is required.’ King Henry V from Agincourt must have been at Pezzullo’s elbow. ‘Once more into the breach dear friends, once more, Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard favor’d rage.’

As though inspired by Xi Jinping to play the strong man, dialogue to nurture democracy was unnecessary. Pezzullo wrote, ‘Be wary of debate which becomes a veil for indecision.’ He reached for the moral high ground, ‘Value openness, collegiality and integrity, and have no tolerance for harassment, discrimination or bullying.’ He finished with what sounds like a touch of guilt, ‘Our portfolio is sometimes seen as a ‘behemoth’ which puts at risk liberty and personal freedom. You and I know that not to be true.’

Authoritarianism has a hypnotic quality. Easy to implement, it needs little thought and appears in many forms: as an abuse of power in families, in work places and in international relations. In populist majority states and in countries where dictatorship is taken for granted, authoritarianism is easily communicated, demands obedience and spreads fear among people who may think there’s no alternative.

China’s erosion of human rights in Hong Kong presents the Australian government with a foreign policy challenge. Either agree with Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping’s beliefs that human rights count for little, or, paradoxically, support human rights by acknowledging abuses in Australian governance..
In relationships with Hong Kong and Beijing, Australian leaders have little room for self-satisfaction. Prima facie it looks as though Carrie Lam would be as comfortable in Canberra as Mike Pezzullo could be in Hong Kong.

Stuart Rees OAM, is Professor Emeritus, University of Sydney and recipient of the Jerusalem (Al Quds) Peace Prize

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