By Will Ziebell
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Foreign diplomats in Australia should respect the right to free speech and peaceful protest, Foreign Minister Marise Payne said, following tension between pro-Hong Kong and pro-Beijing protesters at a university.
Students at Brisbane’s University of Queensland gathered this week to show support for demonstrations in Hong Kong led by pro-democracy activists who object to what they see as Beijing’s growing influence over the financial hub.
Rival students turned up to show support for Beijing, with some playing nationalistic songs and chanting “China is great”, media reported. Footage posted on social media showed some shouting between the two groups and some punches thrown.
China’s consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, praised the pro-Beijing students for confronting what he said were “anti-China separatist” protesters with “ulterior motives”, the Australian newspaper reported on Saturday.
Payne said in a statement the right to free speech was protected in Australia “even on contentious and sensitive issues”.
“The government would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behaviour,” she said.
The former British colony of Hong Kong is embroiled in its worst political crisis for decades after two months of increasingly violent protests that have posed one of the gravest challenges to Communist Party rulers in Beijing.
Hong Kong returned to China under a “one country, two systems” formula in 1997, guaranteeing its freedoms, including rights to protest not enjoyed on the mainland. But many in Hong Kong resent what they see as Beijing’s creeping control.
China denies interfering in Hong Kong and has warned that the protests over a proposed law allowing extraditions to mainland China were an “undisguised challenge”.
The Chinese government has also accused outside powers of stirring up the Hong Kong protests.
Xu, the consul-general in Brisbane, praised the “spontaneous patriotic behaviour” of the pro-Beijing students.
“The consulate general … resolutely opposes the words and deeds of any separatist countries, and opposes the use of these events to create the opposition between Chinese and Hong Kong students and incite anti-China sentiment,” the Australian quoted Xu as saying.
(Reporting by Will Ziebell; Editing by Robert Birsel)