Nanaia Mahuta, Australia's Marise Payne 'deeply concerned' about China's latest electoral changes in Hong Kong

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta and her Australian counterpart Marise Payne have released a joint statement saying they are "deeply concerned" about China making "significant" changes to Hong Kong's electoral system.

The Chinese National People's Congress on Thursday voted near-unanimously to make several changes to Hong Kong's electoral system which critics say undermine the autonomy promised to the territory in 1997 when it was transferred from Britain to China under the 'one country, two systems' model. 

Among the changes supported by the largely ceremonial congress is the expansion of the committee that chooses Hong Kong's chief executive to allow more spots for pro-Beijing loyalists who will also now have more power to vet Legislative Council (LegCo) candidates. 

It's the latest move from China to tighten its grip on the city after it became concerned pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019 could weaken Beijing's hold. A national security law was imposed on the territory last June allowing extradition from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland and more powers for police to stamp down on opposition. 

A number of foreign affairs ministers and world leaders have spoken out against China's most recent move, and on Saturday, New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister made her thoughts clear.

A joint statement from Mahuta and Payne say they are "deeply concerned" the changes "further undermine rights and freedoms and the high degree of autonomy guaranteed by China to Hong Kong until 2047 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration".

"Australia and New Zealand have always wanted Hong Kong to succeed, given its role as a significant hub for finance, trade, and our communities overseas. This depends on Hong Kong continuing to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and respecting the rule of law," the pair say.

"These changes run contrary to the ultimate aim of a Hong Kong Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage, weaken Hong Kong's democratic institutions, and erode freedom of speech and association - all of which are set out in the Basic Law. This is a significant step which will further undermine Hong Kong's autonomy."

The foreign affairs ministers urge the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities to uphold their commitments, "allow genuine avenues for the people of Hong Kong to participate in their governance", and ensure the LegCo continues to be a forum "for the expression of diverse views and scrutiny of government".

Hong Kong's current chief executive, Carrie Lam, justified China's changes by saying they would stop dissenting politicians from disrupting the LegCo. She said this will allow politicians to deal with the "reckless moves or internal rift that have torn Hong Kong apart". Chinese premier Li Keqiang said the new legislation will ensure "patriots" are in control.

Mahuta's denouncement of China's actions in Hong Kong isn't her first this year. In January, she expressed concern at 55 pro-democracy advocates being arrested in the city. However, Mahuta wasn't party to a similar statement from New Zealand's Five Eyes partners condemning China. 

New Zealand suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong last year after China imposed its new national security law. Winston Peters was Foreign Affairs Minister at the time and said the legislation went against commitments China had made to the world.

China quickly responded by blasting Aotearoa for getting involved in its internal affairs before suspending Hong Kong's extradition treaty with New Zealand.