The Coalition has urged the prime minister, Anthony Albanese, to reconsider plans to travel to China after Hong Kong authorities vowed to pursue exiled democracy advocates “for life”.
The Labor government has also warned that it would not tolerate any foreign interference on Australian soil as it promised to protect the principle of free speech, but China’s foreign ministry said western countries should “stop providing a safe haven for fugitives”.
Two people based in Australia are among eight pro-democracy advocates named by Hong Kong police as being wanted for alleged breaches of the city’s sweeping national security law, with rewards of HK$1m (A$191,000) offered for information leading to their arrest.
Those targeted include the Australian citizen Kevin Yam, a lawyer who lived in Hong Kong for 20 years before returning to Australia last year. The list also includes Australia-based Ted Hui, a pro-democracy figure who fled Hong Kong via Europe in 2021 and is on a bridging visa.
The Hong Kong chief executive, John Lee, told reporters on Tuesday that the only way for the activists to “end their destiny of being an abscondee who will be pursued for life is to surrender”.
Lee also warned that Hong Kong authorities would continue to “monitor” the actions and behaviour of the eight while overseas, Reuters reported.
While not detailing what this monitoring would entail, Lee added: “We want them to know that we will not sit and do nothing.”
The shadow home affairs minister, James Paterson, said these warnings should prompt serious action by the Australian government.
“These latest deeply concerning threats made by John Lee raise questions about the prime minister’s planned visit to Beijing later this year,” Paterson said.
“What kind of message does it send to visit while the Chinese government has bounties out on Australian citizens and residents?”
Albanese has said he hopes to visit China this year as part of efforts to “stabilise” the relationship and pursue dialogue, although the details have yet to be confirmed.
On Wednesday Albanese said the announcements were “just unacceptable” and he was “of course disappointed”.
“We will continue to cooperate with China where we can, but we will disagree where we must – and we do disagree over human rights issues,” the prime minister told Nine’s Today program.
The foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said Australia had consistently expressed its deep concerns about the wide application of the national security law.
“Australians support freedom of expression, we support the right of Australians to express their political views peacefully and people who do so in our country will be supported,” Wong told reporters on Tuesday.
Speaking after Lee’s public warnings, Wong said she wanted “to make clear we have strong laws in relation to foreign interference”. “Our position on this is unequivocal and any allegations of foreign interference will be investigated by the appropriate authorities,” Wong said.
Late on Tuesday China’s foreign ministry hit back at Australia, the US and the UK for criticising the arrest warrants.
Mao Ning, a foreign ministry spokesperson, said Hong Kong issues were “purely China’s internal affairs and brook no meddling by any external forces”.
“We strongly deplore and firmly oppose individual countries’ flagrant slandering against the national security law for Hong Kong,” Mao said.
“Relevant countries need to respect China’s sovereignty and the rule of law in Hong Kong, stop lending support for anti-China elements destabilising Hong Kong, and stop providing a safe haven for fugitives.”
Earlier the Hong Kong police superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah alleged that the pro-democracy activists, former lawmakers and legal scholars had “encouraged sanctions … to destroy Hong Kong”.
But Yam, who has criticised the crackdown on dissent and erosion of judicial independence in Hong Kong, told Guardian Australia on Tuesday: “I owe it to all the friends and fellow activists who are currently in jail and are largely silenced not to shut up.”
Hui, a former Democratic party MP based in Adelaide, said the bounty showed western democracies that China was embracing “extreme authoritarianism”.
The then Coalition government froze the treaty on the grounds that China’s imposition of a new national security law on Hong Kong – with extraterritorial reach to dissidents anywhere in the world – was a fundamental change of circumstances.
In the past three years Hong Kong authorities have charged and jailed numerous pro-democracy figures, former lawmakers and students, along with the media tycoon Jimmy Lai. Hong Kong authorities have argued they are restoring stability.
Source: The Guardian