New Zealand 'deeply concerned' by developments in Hong Kong, not discussing resuming extradition treaty year on from suspension

New Zealand hasn't had any discussions about resuming its extradition treaty with Hong Kong as it continues to be "deeply concerned" by developments in the financial hub.

One expert says activities there since the agreement's suspension - a year ago this week - show New Zealand and the international community's concerns about Hong Kong's diminishing autonomy were justified.

But the Chinese Embassy in Wellington says there's nothing to be worried about, claiming its new national security law has created a "safer environment", which it asserts is an "undeniable fact that all unbiased people would recognise". 

In late July last year, former Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters announced the Government had suspended its extradition agreement with Hong Kong in light of Beijing's decision to pass the national security law, mirroring moves by Australia and the United Kingdom.

The internationally-condemned law had significant ramifications for Hong Kong's judicial system and stoked already mounting concerns the 'one country, two systems' principle allowing the city some autonomy was being stamped on by Chinese authorities. 

Supposedly implemented to target separatist and terrorist activity, the legislation is Beijing's means of cracking down on the huge pro-democracy protests seen throughout the city over the year prior. It allows authorities to extradite defendants in Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland, strengthens Beijing's security presence in the city and permits trials to be conducted without juries, behind closed doors and with judges selected by Hong Kong's leadership. 

"New Zealand can no longer trust that Hong Kong’s criminal justice system is sufficiently independent from China," Peters said last year. "If China in future shows adherence to the 'one country, two systems' framework then we could reconsider this decision."

But in the year since that statement, Beijing appears to have only tightened its grip on Hong Kong.

Unsurprisingly, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade told Newshub this week there have been "no discussions with China or Hong Kong, China about bringing the treaty back into force". 

"Aotearoa New Zealand continues to be deeply concerned by ongoing developments in Hong Kong, and will therefore keep our policy settings under review."

One expert says "our fears were justified" about Beijing's interference in the city.
One expert says "our fears were justified" about Beijing's interference in the city. Photo credit: Getty Images.

'Our fears were justified'

There have been several developments in Hong Kong over the last year that worry the international community and independent observers.

Just on Tuesday, the first person charged and tried under the national security law was found guilty of terrorism and inciting secession.

According to reports, Tong Ying-kit crashed his motorcycle - which carried a flag with a 'Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times' slogan - into riot police during a protest last July. He pleaded not guilty to the charges, with his lawyers arguing there was no evidence the crash was deliberate or that he was inciting secession simply by having the flag. But Justice Esther Toh said Tong had "committed terrorist activities causing or intended to cause grave harm to the society".

The verdict was denounced by Amnesty International as "the beginning of the end for freedom of expression in Hong Kong". 

According to a The Guardian analysis, more than 120 people have been arrested in Hong Kong under the national security law since it came into force last June. Many are un-named protesters, but the list includes media tycoon Jimmy Lai, an outspoken pro-democracy activist. Authorities also targeted his newspaper, Apple Daily, raiding its office and freezing its assets, eventually leading it to close in June. 

The Chinese National People's Congress also this year voted to make several changes to Hong Kong's electoral system which critics say undermine the autonomy promised to the territory in 1997.

Among the changes was 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. 

International law academic Alexander Gillespie told Newshub events since the national security law was implemented show "our fears were justified" and he can't see the situation improving. 

"The way the people are being held, the way the trials are being done in secret, the charges and the penalties are not the way that we would expect things to be done, especially in Hong Kong," Gillespie tells Newshub. "I think the reasons that we withdrew the extradition treaty as part of the overall concern were justified."

"I think the idea of Hong Kong having any regional autonomy has gone and that's not just with regards to its judicial system, it's in regard to its security settings, it's with regard to the administration of justice."

Alexander Gillespie.
Alexander Gillespie. Photo credit: Paul Henry.

Gillespie said the Chinese political system works with a "long-term" outlook and is "often impervious to external complaint". That means Beijing was unlikely to make any quick changes to its behaviour due to New Zealand or other countries expressing concern.

"Even though you might be concerned about the South China Sea or you might be concerned about cyberattacks or you might be concerned about the Uighurs, [China doesn't] change course.

"What they do, though, in these situations is bluster, have counter threats, then get their friends to sort of make accusations on the side aimed back at the West." 

That's exactly what China did. 

The Chinese Embassy in Wellington labelled the decision "a serious violation of international law" and "gross interference in China's internal affairs". Wang Wenbin, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson, urged New Zealand to "correct its mistake and stop interfering in China's Hong Kong affairs to avoid damage to bilateral relations". 

Peters criticised China's reaction when interviewed on Newshub Nation at the time. 

"You can look at the language where it is said that they have hit back, but the reality is I was there as New Zealand's representative in 1997 in the handover of Hong Kong and the 'one country, two systems' guarantee that the Chinese government gave at that occasion," Peters said. 

"Everybody understands it, and, so, to say it's an interference from New Zealand or other countries is really a massive misuse of language. It's nothing of the sort. What we're saying is, 'We trusted you in your commitment of 1997. Please honour it, and if you do, we will review our position.'"

China shortly afterwards suspended Hong Kong's extradition agreement with New Zealand

On top of suspending the extradition treaty, New Zealand also last year changed how we treat the export of sensitive goods to Hong Kong and altered our travel advice. 

China responds

Asked this week about New Zealand still being "deeply concerned" by developments in Hong Kong, the Chinese Embassy in Wellington sent a statement to Newshub saying that "Hong Kong affairs fall entirely within China's internal affairs that no country, organization or individual has the right to interfere".

It said China adheres to the 'one country, two systems' principle and that by enforcing the national security law, authorities have "reversed the chaos in Hong Kong at one stroke".

"Since the Law took effect one year ago, national security has been safeguarded, social order has been restored, rule of law and justice have been upheld, and the lawful rights and freedoms of Hong Kong citizens and foreign residents in the SAR have been better protected in a safer environment. This is an undeniable fact that all unbiased people would recognise."

The embassy said China has an "unswerving resolve and confidence" in implementing the 'one country, two systems' policy and would "oppose foreign interference in China's internal affairs".

Over the last year, New Zealand has spoken out against Beijing's interference in Hong Kong both independently and with its partners. 

That includes a joint statement in March from the New Zealand and Australian Foreign Affairs Ministers expressing concern about the electoral system changes, while Aotearoa has also joined in a statement as part of the Media Freedom Coalition raising concerns about the closure of Apple Daily

In January, New Zealand raised eyebrows by being absent from a Five Eyes statement condemning the arrest of pro-democracy protesters. But Mahuta instead tweeted her concerns independently. 

Beijing's role in Hong Kong isn't the only issue troubling the New Zealand Government. It's also raised concerns about severe human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Chinese state-sponsored cyber attacks and tensions in the South China sea.

"Each week there's another layer of tension with China," Gillespie said. You can see that not just between New Zealand and China, but with regards to all the Five Eyes countries. Every week there's a new concern and the tensions are going in the wrong direction or the pathways going in the wrong direction."