News Michael Pascoe: We never run out of martyrs in Hong Kong
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Michael Pascoe: We never run out of martyrs in Hong Kong

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I grew up in Hong Kong, sort of.

Left my parents’ Brisbane home as a young journalist for a job on the South China Morning Post and did a lot of growing up over the next three years. I might even have become an adult there.

It left me with an undiminished fondness for this unique place and admiration and respect for its people.

Once you have it, you don’t lose love of the romance of the South China Sea and the drive, humour and optimism of Hong Kong people and their turbulent history.

Thus I watched the protest movement grow with resigned sorrow.

I’ve not tried to write about it until now.

It’s not yet-another-passing-through-expat’s story to write – it belongs to the Hong Kong people who are being inevitably shafted.

But now Australia is buying into the tragedy, I suspect more as part of the government’s increasingly niggly relationship with China than out of genuine concern for Hong Kong people.

On the coattails (yet again) of the United States making the situation worse by ending Hong Kong’s special status and the UK belatedly realising the deal it agreed in 1984 was crook, Scott Morrison with a nod and a wink is offering something very akin to a special refugee status for select Hong Kong residents.

That’s despite Australia routinely pushing back out to sea or jailing people who face much worse situations in their countries of origin than is the case in China’s Hong Kong.

Discretely making special provision for targeted democracy activists makes sense. Being part of Britain’s grandiose Five Eyes proposal to substantially empty Hong Kong would reek of hypocrisy.

Rohingya, anyone? Syrians? Any West Papuans heading south?

And if the average Hong Kong student qualifies for quasi-refugee status, how can Border Force refuse special consideration for mainland Chinese students who have it worse?

How does China’s dreadful imposition of national security laws on Hong Kong measure up with the reality of Sri Lankan life for Tamils with any family links to the vanquished fighters?

How does the life of the average Hong Kong resident compare with the Biloela family our government is so expensively determined to persecute?

Make no mistake, China’s degradation of Hong Kong is outrageous, a clear violation of its agreement with the UK.

It’s also a tragedy that has been coming for decades.

When the handover agreement was announced, I wondered if the same deal would have been done if it was a territory populated by round-eyes being given back to the Soviet Union instead.

Never mind a hypothetical Soviet example, there is Gibraltar and Spain, the Falklands and Argentina.

But there were all those armaments the UK wanted to sell to China – and still does.

Yet the expiration of the New Territories lease was a reality that had to be faced.

Realpolitik meant the “Unequal Treaties” ceding perpetual control of Kowloon and Hong Kong were to become matters of convention, not law.

With or without the 1984 deal, Hong Kong had long existed at Beijing’s behest.

Similarly, post the 1997 handover, Hong Kong’s relative freedoms could only exist as long as they were not tested.

Even at this distance, you could sense what was going to happen as the protests were gathering momentum over Carrie Lam’s ill-considered extradition law: The “face” thing would make it difficult for Beijing’s administration to back down; the intransigence would spark greater protests; the young would be fuelled and enthused by the purpose, the just cause, the comradeship, so that when the extradition legislation was dropped, they would want more – and no more would be remotely countenanced.

And when some of the protesters started waving US flags – a big step too far.

The idealistic young – we never run out of martyrs.

Hong Kong has never had democracy. It never could.

It certainly didn’t as a British colony and the subsequent Legislative Council representation was solidly rigged to ensure Beijing compliance.

What Hong Kong had was a pragmatic acceptance of the rule of British law and the personal freedoms that came with that.

The grossly incompetent Ms Lam lit a fuse that has done great damage to those freedoms.

But, as wiser heads advising the government must know, we’re not about to see Hong Kong emptied.

When planes can fly again in number, there won’t be millions of “plane people” landing here or in the UK.

Hong Kong protesters gesture the five demands sign during demonstrations against the draft bill. Photo: SOPA Images

The reality of Hong Kong for 178 years has been that it exists to do business.

Despite devastating wars and revolution, it has continued to exist and grow through pragmatism, through the drive of people to provide for their family.

A relative few brave people will be threatened and worse by China’s new laws.

Most Hong Kong residents will grumble and curse but get on with their lives, the way most people in China who are not party members curse and quietly belittle the Communist Party.

Hong Kong has survived worse and will survive this as well.

What does not help Hong Kong people is a couple of western governments using them as props in a greater conflict.

With the US determined to have a bifurcated world, it can only encourage Beijing to think there is no point tolerating a little halfway house of declining importance. Crush what won’t bow.

The northerners have never cared much for the Cantonese anyway – about as much as the average northern European does for southern Europeans.

What could Australia do to help Hong Kong?

Having trashed what were once good diplomatic ties with China – extremely little.

We can quietly keep our door open to the people who will need refuge.

It does not help to grandstand about cherry-picking talent and hilariously trot out yet again the old idea of Australia as a major Asian regional headquarters.

The tone of government statements on Thursday was sometimes akin to glee that Australia could profiteer from Hong Kong’s tragedy.

The millions of proud Hong Kong people staying put won’t welcome that.

We could make it worse if we continue to stumble down the hawks’ preferred path of dividing the world into American and Chinese blocs.

And it would end up damaging our own selfish interests in the process.