Strange Bedfellows: China, Hong Kong and Australia And Our Love Of Authoritarianism



China likes a strongman image. Australia doesn’t look all that different, writes Stuart Rees.

Human Rights Watch reports that in areas of free expression and political participation, oppression in Hong Kong has increased to the worst level since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. Such developments pose a challenge to Australia’s supposed championing of human rights.

Hong Kong is sandwiched between different value systems. The Hong Kong Basic Law guarantees respect for human rights, albeit under the One Country Two Systems agreement formulated in1980 by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. But Chinese President Xi Jinping demands that the Communist Party should exercise leadership over all endeavors in every part of the country, including the supposedly autonomous Hong Kong.

The pro-Beijing leader of the Hong Kong government, Carrie Lam, appears unwilling, or unable, to resist authoritarian pressures from the mainland.

Hong Kong, Beijing, Canberra

Hong Kong and Chinese leaders’ may be fascinated with authoritarianism but Australian politicians could also acknowledge abuses of power in their own country. Such abuses include Centrelink’s robo-debt pursuit of vulnerable citizens, Home Affairs’ illegal containment of asylum seekers, conditions in juvenile detention centres and bullying in the offices of federal politicians.

Even the design of Australia’s Department of Home Affairs has something in common with China’s assumptions about efficiency in a gargantuan system. To create Home Affairs, numerous departments were amalgamated into one operation: the Federal Police, ASIO, Australian Border Force, immigration, customs, counter-terrorism and emergency management, ruled by the Minister Peter Dutton and Secretary Mike Pezzullo.

Big Brother China v. Autonomous Hong Kong is a tug of war over freedom of speech, of the press and of association. The Hong Kong Independence Party has been outlawed. Pro-democracy lawmaker Eddie Chu was banned from participating in elections and activists for the movement, ‘Occupy Central with Peace and Love’ were recently given sentences of up to 16 months in prison. They had campaigned for democratic reforms such as the direct election of Hong Kong’s leader. Their alleged unlawful behaviour included holding press conferences, media interviews and public meetings in which they had discussed a non-violent, direct-action campaign.

Mainland China intervenes in Hong Kong to silence critics. Hong Kong booksellers have disappeared to China then reappeared to say their disappearance had been voluntary, they had merely been helping authorities with investigations into a special case.  

In late 2015, Lam Wing-kee was among five Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared. His Chinese interrogators wanted to know, ‘Who were your customers?’, ‘What did they buy?’ ‘How often did they come into your shop?’ Proposals about extradition laws have made Lam fear for his safety and decide to migrate to Taiwan.

In response to those recently introduced extradition laws, Hong Kong citizens are certain that in no way could there ever be a fair trial for anyone returned to face justice in Chinese courts. Their fears were confirmed when Hong Kong secretary for security John Lee admitted to discussions with his counterparts in mainland China but said there was no need for public consultation in Hong Kong.

In a re-run of a Big Brother 1984 satire, except that it’s real, China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee endorsed a change to China’s criminal code to make abuse of the national anthem or the flag punishable by up to three years in prison. Anyone who did not stand still for the anthem or who behaved in other ‘distorted or disrespectful ways in public’ would be liable for such punishment.

In January 2019 the Hong Kong government proposed the same measure. Punishment in their anthem law included fines of $50,000HK and three years behind bars.

Xi Jinping’s one-party rule explains mainland authoritarianism. The compliance of pro-Beijing legislators in Hong Kong derives from the same top down respect for authority coupled to intolerance of criticism from subordinates and fear of offending superiors.

Hong Kong Chief Executive

To consider the authoritarian common ground in Hong Kong and Australia, the attitudes of the Secretary of Home Affairs in Australia Mike Pezzullo and those of the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, merit scrutiny.

The career of Carrie Lam shows deference to hierarchies, concern with conformity and desire to gain the approval of immediate bosses. Her list of achievements includes being Head Prefect at a Catholic Girls School and Director of Social Welfare where she tightened the Social Security Scheme to make it available only to people who had lived in Hong Kong for more than seven years.

This decision was echoed in Australia by Minister Peter Dutton’s cruel requirement that permanent Australian residents applying for citizenship would in future have to wait for four years not one; and for temporary migrants the waiting time would be seven years.

Lam’s compliance with Beijing’s wishes was evident in her refusal to renew the work visa of Financial Times journalist Victor Mallett who had chaired a meeting at the Foreign Correspondents Club addressed by Andy Chan, founder of the outlawed National Party. In a press conference to explain her government’s refusal to renew Mallett’s visa, Lam said that all the information relating to her decision was secret. Sounding like Scott Morrison justifying secrecy in the Australian military operation to turn back asylum seeker boats, Lam said she trusted her bureaucracy and could not say more.

Principles such as people’s right to know or her own freedom to criticize, were alien to her idea of effective government. She explained that there could be no explanation. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky had warned that the world’s Carrie Lams and other fearful administrators would find freedom distasteful and would therefore surrender it to more powerful others.

As though promotion to top jobs guaranteed pride, even ego enlargement, Cam once quoted the Eighth Beatitude, which she claimed applied to her, ‘Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’ She questioned, ‘Perhaps there is already a place reserved in heaven for me?’

By advocating strict application of the law and harsh punishment for lawbreakers, Lam apparently expected to gain Beijing’s approval. Shakespeare had predicted such behavior. In Measure for Measure he forecast that an individual (Angelo) who sought to consolidate power would always insist on respect for law, however harsh, ‘We must not make an exception of the law, setting it up for birds of prey.’ In Hong Kong’s case, the birds of prey would include booksellers and the Orange Umbrella activists of the Occupy Central movement.

Australian Secretary of Home Affairs

Australian proponents of order and control as the means of government include Home Affairs boss Secretary Mike Pezzullo and his Minister Peter Dutton. As the public servant responsible for the policy to deter asylum seekers – Operation Sovereign Borders – Pezzullo developed a liking for military practices, as in his introduction of police style uniforms for the Australian Border Force (ABF).

In what must have been a dark authoritarian mood, he concocted the idea that Australians could be targeted by the defence intelligence agency, and the Australian Federal Police could demand ID from people in airports.

Staff morale in Home Affairs plummeted. A quarter of experienced senior staff left the Department. Senior staff who left felt that Pezzullo had needlessly insulted their work and that of the Department. A former executive explained, ‘Pezzullo could have taken people with him; instead he made many think they were hopeless and without value.’

In July 2018, Secretary Pezzullo sent a long-winded sermon – his ‘general leadership philosophy’ – to his senior staff. He wrote, ‘I expect you to fully read this Blueprint for Home Affairs.’ His message included a not very well disguised threat, ‘I will use your demonstrated efforts to realise the Blueprint when assessing your performance and considering future opportunities for you in the Department.’

Pezzullo expressed his hopes for the right kind of staff moods. ‘I expect you to be authentically optimistic.’ He advised, ‘Remain steely under pressure and especially in the midst of a crisis. Do not micromanage capable subordinates, but do not hesitate to spring into action when decisive intervention is required.’ King Henry V from Agincourt must have been at Pezzullo’s elbow: ‘Once more into the breach dear friends, once more, Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, Disguise fair nature with hard favor’d rage.’   

As though inspired by Xi Jinping to play the strong man, dialogue to nurture democracy was unnecessary. Pezzullo wrote, ‘Be wary of debate which becomes a veil for indecision.’ Somewhat hypocritically, he reached for the moral high ground, ‘Value openness, collegiality and integrity and have no tolerance for harassment, discrimination or bullying.’

As though his conscience prompted him to finish his sermon on a high note, Pezzullo projected a sliver of guilt, ‘Our portfolio is sometimes seen as a ‘behemoth’ which puts at risk liberty and personal freedom. You and I know that not to be true.’

The Attraction of Authoritarianism  

Authoritarianism has a hypnotic quality. Easy to exercise, it takes little thought and appears in many forms: as an abuse of power in families, in work places, in institutions and in international relations. In populist majority states and in countries where dictatorship is taken for granted, authoritarianism is easily communicated. It asks for obedience and spreads fear among people who may think there’s no alternative.

Mainland China’s erosion of human rights in Hong Kong presents the Australian government with a foreign policy challenge. They can either agree with Carrie Lam and Xi Jinping’s beliefs that human rights count for little, or, paradoxically, support human rights by acknowledging abuses in Australian governance.

In relationships with Hong Kong and Beijing, Australian leaders have little room for self-satisfaction. Prima facie it looks as though Carrie Lam would be as comfortable in Canberra as Mike Pezzullo could be in Hong Kong.


Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.