Hong Kong uprising a conundrum for Canberra

Last Updated:2014-10-07

By Geoff Raby

In the past 48 hours, Hong Kong may have stepped back from the brink. Although some areas of Central are still occupied, the protest movement’s leaders have sensibly decided for the time being not to step over the red line drawn by Chief Executive C. Y. Leung – government offices and schools have been allowed to re-open.

But the issues are far from resolved. This may be just a pause. Much has changed with these past 10 days of protests. The veil of a smooth, stable transition in Hong Kong has been ripped off. Exposed now is a deeply divided society, in which a significant number of Hong Kong citizens have made clear that they will not accept Beijing’s imposed arrangements for elections in 2017.

This has been the most important challenge to the authority of the Chinese Communist Party in 25 years. The lessons Beijing takes away from this may not be the ones we would hope for. More likely they will be that more resolute action needs to be taken and sooner in the face of renewed civil disobedience.

So the Abbott government could still find itself having to make excruciating decisions about the nature and extent of sanctions it will apply against Beijing.

It may not come to that. Certainly it is everyone’s hope that it won’t, but the hardening of positions on all sides suggests that it might.

The Hawke government faced the same question 25 years ago, following the violent suppression of the peaceful Tiananmen protests. But at that time, though China was full of promise and opportunity, its importance to Australia’s economic well-being and its contribution to regional stability were minuscule.

Twenty-five years ago the Hawke government struggled mightily over what to do. Bob Hawke himself had become emotionally attached to the relationship. He had developed genuinely close personal ties with the key leaders driving China’s nascent economic reforms. They also shared with him their private visions of future political reform.

Pressure from the West

The Hawke government was put under great pressure by the US administration to join a concerted Western front of tough sanctions. Not only did China’s relative unimportance pose few costs for those applying sanctions, it was easy to mobilise public opinion in the West for doing so. At the end of the Cold War, China was viewed as an unyielding, largely closed, authoritarian “communist" state. So the “butchers of Beijing" were readily demonised by the popular media and by politicians.

Led by then foreign minister Gareth Evans, others in the government took a more strategic position. It was argued that sanctions would produce few results in terms of affecting Beijing’s behaviour, while running the risk of seriously damaging Australia’s long-term interests in the relationship.

Moreover, those urging minimal sanctions were concerned that an overly aggressive stance would politically harm the more liberal elements in China that were the hope of future reform and opening of both the economic and political systems. To the annoyance of the US, the Hawke government opted for a minimalist set of measures aimed mainly at areas of military and police co-operation, and restricting high-level visits for a period. And after the initial shock had passed, ministers were disciplined in their public statements, avoiding emotional language.

Whether it will come to this in Hong Kong is still a big unknown. Certainly everyone has so much more to lose now than 25 years ago, and of course Hong Kong is not the poor insular city that Beijing was then. But then as now, the public protests are about the same thing: the CCP’s authority. Its record is not to tolerate dissent but to use whatever means it has to assert its control. And while we know little of Xi Jinping the man, he seems determined not to become “China’s Gorbachev".

Walking among the demonstrators in Central in Hong Kong last weekend was reminiscent of walking through Tiananmen Square all those years ago. The same young faces, many wearing the customary protest colours of black and white. But all were not young. An ancient protester sat alone with his banner and gratefully accepted a sandwich from a teenager distributing food. His gratitude seemed less for being fed than for recognition of solidarity with the movement.

Similar social organisation and administrative structures were in place, emphasising mutual aid and support. Street art and theatre echoed that of an earlier period too, although updated by modern technology with the ubiquitous mobile phone, and brightly coloured “Post-It notes" from the world of the office.

Recent hard-line editorials from the Party’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, also resonate from the past, when last the Party’s authority was challenged.

Bloodshed is not inevitable, as it wasn’t in Tiananmen Square.

But in the event then that the Prime Minister and his colleagues find themselves sitting around the cabinet table trying to work out how to respond to Beijing, it may be of little comfort for them to recall that a previous Australian government faced the same conundrums 25 years ago. Then, there were no easy choices but with hindsight least bad ones were made. Today the costs are much greater and the wise options far fewer. It will be a time for cool reason, rather than ideological enthusiasm.

Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review: