New Zealand Rebukes China for Trying to ‘Suppress Freedom of Speech’ at Pro-Hong Kong Rallies

The fourth iteration of the University of Auckland ‘Lennon Wall’ which was torn down again on Tuesday.
We Are Hong Konger Facebook page

The New Zealand Foreign Ministry met with Chinese officials on Monday and formally denounced China for attempting to suppress freedom of speech by encouraging violence against supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement in New Zealand last week.

“The government has rebuked China over its recent comments and actions where it sought to suppress freedom of speech and voiced support for violent opposition to Hong Kong protesters in New Zealand,” Reuters reported on Wednesday.

New Zealand officials stressed to their Chinese counterparts that freedom of speech will be protected and evidently criticized the Chinese consul general for praising the “spontaneous patriotism” of Chinese youths who physically attacked students at the University of Auckland who held a rally in support of the Hong Kong protesters.

“The consulate general’s comments encouraged disruptive and violent behavior which undermines authorities’ upholding the rule of law here in New Zealand, and therefore our internal affairs,” lawmaker David Seymour charged on Tuesday while addressing a rally at the University of Auckland.

Reuters noted the Chinese consulate published a statement on its website last week denouncing pro-Hong Kong rallies for “demonizing” China and “inciting anti-China sentiment,” which could be seen as troubling signals to other spontaneous patriots who might be living in New Zealand at the moment.

Peace has not returned to the University of Auckland campus, as the South China Morning Post reported on Wednesday:

Tensions between different groups of New Zealand’s Chinese community flared again on Tuesday during a rally organized in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

About 100 people, including opposition MP David Seymour, attended the two-hour rally at the University of Auckland. The event was organized by students opposing the now-suspended extradition bill, legislation that would allow suspects of serious crimes to be sent from Hong Kong to other jurisdictions, including mainland China.

The largely peaceful rally was briefly interrupted by an unidentified pro-Beijing supporter, who held up a placard that read: “Hong Kong independence mob”. He left after a confrontation with one of the rally-goers, which was filmed by other attendees.

“I can feel there is increasing tension,” Serena Lee, from rally organizer the We Are Hong Konger group, said in a video of the event on the group’s Facebook page. “We’re actually opposing the extradition bill. But they [mainland students] see this as an action to oppose the Chinese government.”

Lee was seen on video getting shoved to the ground by a pro-Beijing agitator who crashed her rally at the university last week. Chinese Internet users have accused her of faking the assault to gain sympathy and she has been targeted with death threats since the incident, as have the organizers of a similar student rally in Australia.

The South China Morning Post noted that supporters of the Hong Kong protest movement at the University of Auckland have repeatedly attempted to create a “Lennon Wall,” a wall covered with Post-It notes containing messages of support, but it has been destroyed by vandals every time.

A Chinese student involved in the counter-protests at the University of Auckland accused the pro-Hong Kong students of secretly trying to “promote separatism, deliberately tarnish the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, as well as Hong Kong police, and make excuses for the rioters’ mob behavior,” apparently under the mistaken impression that such advocacy would justify using mob violence to suppress their freedom of speech in defiance of New Zealand’s laws.

New Zealand’s Newsroom detected a sea change in Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s approach to China with the unprecedented rebuke delivered on Monday and Ardern’s subsequent statements, reporting:

On Tuesday, Ardern confirmed MFAT [New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs] reiterated the New Zealand’s position on freedom of speech, particularly on university campuses.

“We guard that, that is part of who we are. And I think it is important for those that may take a different view that we are very clear on our expectations.”

MFAT also raised concerns about recent statements from Chinese officials that suggested pro-Hong Kong protests should not occur, and that violence in protest would be justified.

Ardern said New Zealand valued its freedom of expression, particularly on university campuses and in an academic environment.

“And I’d have an expectation that we actually retain that on our campuses.”

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters declared that “freedom of speech is what we stand for, and we do not want that in any way compromised in our country,” but added that his government preferred to address its concerns discreetly.

“Running ‘round and shouting from the rooftops is not our style. We tell them quietly,” he said.

The Chinese embassy to New Zealand conceded that it has moved to suppress speech that displeases the Communist Party, such as the University of Auckland’s commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre and a film critical of the “Confucius Institutes” established at foreign universities by the Chinese government, but insisted the consul general’s praise of “spontaneous patriotism” was misunderstood. The embassy said his objective was to support mainland Chinese students who “express their concerns in the proper way, in accordance with the law and regulations.”

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