New Zealand has joined its Five Eyes partners in expressing "grave concern over the erosion of democratic elements" in Hong Kong following the city's election over the weekend, the outcome of which was largely influenced by Beijing.
The Chinese National People's Congress earlier this year made a number of significant changes to the electoral system in Hong Kong which critics said undermined the autonomy the city was promised when it was transferred from Britain to China in 1997 under the 'one country, two systems model'.
The number of lawmakers elected directly to Hong Kong's Legislative Council (LegCo) by the people was dramatically reduced and candidates had to be vetted by Beijing. It led to the contest being described as a "patriots-only" election.
There was just a 30.2 percent turnout at the election over the weekend, roughly half of the previous one in 2016. Nearly all the seats were won by pro-Beijing and pro-establishment candidates.
The process has been widely condemned, including by Aotearoa, which joined with Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom on Tuesday in a statement blasting the "erosion of democratic elements".
"Actions that undermine Hong Kong's rights, freedoms and high degree of autonomy are threatening our shared wish to see Hong Kong succeed," says the statement from the Foreign Ministers of the Five Eyes nations.
"Since handover, candidates with diverse political views have contested elections in Hong Kong. Yesterday's election has reversed this trend."
The ministers say the electoral system changes earlier this year "eliminated any meaningful political opposition" and also noted that many of the city's opposition politicians are in prison pending trial or are in exile overseas.
Protesters and opposition figures have been arrested under China's national security law, which was implemented last year and led some western countries - including New Zealand - to drop their extradition treaties with Hong Kong. The law provides authorities with incredible power to stamp down on any dissent or resistance and has significantly curtailed free speech in the city.
Both the electoral system changes and national security law come after massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong in 2019.
"We also remain gravely concerned at the wider chilling effect of the National Security Law and the growing restrictions on freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, which are being felt across civil society," the Five Eyes foreign ministers said on Tuesday.
"NGOs, trade unions and human rights organisations not supportive of the government's agenda have been forced to disband or leave, while media freedoms are being curtailed at pace."
The five countries say protecting space for "peaceful, alternative views" is the "most effective way to ensure the stability and prosperity of Hong Kong".
"We urge the People’s Republic of China to act in accordance with its international obligations to respect protected rights and fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong, including those guaranteed under the Sino-British Joint Declaration."
In a statement to Newshub, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Wellington said the Five Eyes had "openly finger-pointed over China's Hong Kong affairs, deliberately attacked Hong Kong's electoral system and smeared the Legislative Council (LegCo) election".
The spokesperson said it was a "flagrant violation of international law and basic norms governing international relations".
"The Chinese side is strongly concerned about and firmly opposed to it."
The statement goes on to speak about the election and Beijing's confidence it was "politically inclusive".
"The Chinese side urges the Five Eyes Alliance and its member to respect China's sovereignty, abide by international law and basic norms for international relations, be discreet with their words and deeds, stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs.
"We hope that relevant country will adhere to an independent foreign policy, maintain the political basis of bilateral relations, and do more to promote Hong Kong's prosperity and stability and bilateral relations with China."
New Zealand joining with its Five Eyes partners to make the statement has been called "significant" by The Australian, which noted that in April Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said she was "uncomfortable" expanding the group's remit beyond intelligence-sharing.
That came after New Zealand was criticised for not being party to a Five Eyes statement in January criticising the arrest of 55 pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong. Mahuta tweeted her concern separately.
In March, Mahuta released a statement with her Australian counterpart Marise Payne expressing concern about China's changes to Hong Kong's electoral system.
New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said in July that there had been no discussions at that point about bringing the extradition treaty with Hong Kong back into force. The Chinese Embassy in Wellington told Newshub at the time that the national security law had led to "social order" and the "rule of law" being restored in Hong Kong.
'Hong Kong enjoying happy moment'
China's state-owned media tabloid the Global Times has already published an editorial on Tuesday criticising the Five Eyes for their "blurred vision unwilling to see Hong Kong back on the right track" and suggesting the fact the countries have released a statement shows "Hong Kong has done the right thing".
The piece says it is false to say democracy in Hong Kong has been eroded and the Five Eyes are spouting "malicious cliches" at a time when Hong Kong "is enjoying a happy moment".
"Are they all colorblind? During these elections, many people with different political propositions were nominated, some of whom were successfully elected. The composition of the newly elected members is more representative than the previous generation."
The Five Eyes aren't the only grouping to release a statement criticising the electoral process, with the G7 countries also taking issue with the contest.
Asked at a press conference overnight about western countries' "irresponsible remarks about the election", Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Hong Kong's electoral system "is purely China's internal affair"
"In the name of caring about Hong Kong’s democracy, they are meddling in Hong Kong’s politics, interfering in China’s internal affairs and obstructing China’s development. If countries form a class, the US is by no means a 'straight-A student' in the 'democracy course', still less is it in a position to be a 'lecturer'."
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said after the election that mandating candidates be patriots "is legitimate" after a period of political turbulence. She brushed off concerns about the low voter turnout.