New Zealand Parliamentarians have joined their international counterparts in calling for a ‘lifeboat scheme’ for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists, Laura Walters reports

MPs Louisa Wall and Simon O’Connor have written to the Prime Minister calling for a ‘lifeboat scheme’ for young Hongkongers facing political persecution.

The pair, who are the New Zealand co-chairs for the global Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), wrote to Jacinda Ardern on Tuesday, urging her to offer sanctuary to young pro-democracy activists.

The Labour MP and National MP stressed the need for a scheme to provide safety to those who faced political persecution and arbitrary arrest under the new Hong Kong National Security Law, which came into effect in July.

As the Government considered allowing students into the country in February 2021 and continued its discussions around a possible travel bubble with Hong Kong, Wall and O’Connor – along with their IPAC counterparts – urged the Prime Minister to create a “lifeline for young, vulnerable Hongkongers” through a graduate visa programme.

They proposed a scheme that would give Hongkongers studying in New Zealand the right to work and stay.

A ‘safe haven visa’ has already earned the backing of National’s former leader Simon Bridges, who was previously the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson. But the Labour-led Government has not created policy for this type of visa.

In July, Australia announced a five-year visa, similar to that being proposed by IPAC in New Zealand.

It allows graduates to work in Australia and create a pathway to citizenship.

And the United Kingdom has offered up to 3 million Hong Kong overseas British nationals (BNOs) the right to live and work in the UK.

However, the UK scheme does not cover those born after 1997, who are a particularly vulnerable group under Hong Kong’s new National Security Law.

Wall and O’Connor, along with IPAC and other activists, said it wasn’t up to one country alone to provide sanctuary and security to those at risk. The international community needed to come together to offer solutions, and New Zealand was part of that.

New Zealand and Hong Kong share common interests, with about 3000 New Zealanders living in Hong Kong – more when considering dual nationals on New Zealand passports.

New Zealand is also home to nearly 1200 Hong Kong students, with about 400 young Hongkongers taking up working holiday visas each year.

Along with other Five Eyes countries, New Zealand has retained strong ties with Hong Kong, and interest in the human rights situation.

“We cannot turn away from the crisis in Hong Kong and leave the question of offering refuge for vulnerable activists to others.”

“New Zealand has a proud record of standing up against human rights abuses across the world and a reputation as an open and generous country,” Wall and O’Connor said in their letter to the Prime Minister.

“We cannot turn away from the crisis in Hong Kong and leave the question of offering refuge for vulnerable activists to others.”

Under the National Security Law, which came into effect in July, young activists who have been involved in pro-democracy protests over the past few years are facing arbitrary arrest, lengthy jail sentences, and even the possibility of extradition to mainland China.

More than 10,000 people have been arrested in the past year, as a result of political unrest and in protest of the National Security Law (NSL). Hundreds face possible years in prison.

Since the implementation of the law, academics had also been fired, and press freedom undermined, with the raid on the Apple Daily newsroom.

In August, 12 young activists were intercepted attempting to flee the city in a boat to Taiwan, and were detained in Shenzhen without access to their families, lawyers, or medical treatment for about two months.

Many of those affected by the new law were now looking for a safe route out of Hong Kong and an opportunity to restart their lives abroad, Wall and O’Connor said.

National MP Simon O’Connor (pictured) and Labour MP Louisa Wall have written to Jacinda Ardern urging her to create a visa for young Hongkongers, which would act as a ‘lifeline for those facing political persecution. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Hong Kong Watch chief executive Benedict Rogers said the situation was “very urgent”.

The decision by the dozen young activists to try their luck in a “ramshackle speedboat” illustrated how desperate some people were feeling, Rogers said.

“The longer we leave it without an offer in place, from different countries including New Zealand, the more likely it is that vulnerable young activists could face arrest, and long prison sentences.”

The NSL “destroyed Hong Kong’s freedoms”, and anybody who had expressed any form of dissent was vulnerable – this included those students who had staged protests in New Zealand.

The sooner New Zealand could put in place a way for people to get out of Hong Kong, or stay away from Hong Kong, and find sanctuary, the better, he said.

“We are now reaching a point where the free world, where countries that believe in democracy and human rights and freedom really need to stand closer together in the face of the challenges that an increasingly repressive Chinese regime, domestically, and aggressive, externally, poses. 

“The more we can coordinate and do together as democracies, both to help Hongkongers and to stand up for our values, the better.”

“This is not only a battle for Hong Kong people, but is a battle to constrain the authoritarian, expansionist, Chinese, communist regime.”

This letter comes in support of recent calls from London-based Hong Kong pro-democracy activist, and former Hong Kong lawmaker, Nathan Law.

Law told Newsroom New Zealand had already signalled its position on human rights and concerns about the rule of law in Hong Kong through its suspension of the extradition treaty.

Now New Zealand needed to solidify its position and show it was part of the alliance to hold China accountable, he said.

“This is not only a battle for Hong Kong people, but is a battle to constrain the authoritarian, expansionist, Chinese, communist regime, and we need the voice of New Zealand in the fight.”

Those activists who had a role in the movement, both inside Hong Kong and around the world, had legitimate reasons to fear persecution from China, Law said.

Prioritising a lifeline scheme would help address the imminent threat of arrest those people faced.

“More and more liberal democracies are aware of the authoritarianism of China, and most of them have suffered from its infiltration, and different activities of the authoritarian regime in their homeland, including discrediting democracies. 

“So it’s important that we have a more consolidated effort towards constraining [the Chinese regime’s] influence.”

This would come through like-minded countries implementing a range of policies to constrain that influence, Law said.

Former Hong Kong lawmaker and pro-democracy activist Nathan Law says New Zealand needs to solidify its position on an increasingly authoritarian and expansionist Chinese regime. Photo: Getty Images

IPAC is a cross-party, bipartisan group, with representation from 18 countries and the EU.

It was set up earlier this year, in recognition that like-minded countries needed to work together in a coordinated approach.

As well as Wall and O’Connor in New Zealand, Conservative Party MP Iain Duncan Smith and Labour MP Helena Kennedy represent IPAC in the UK, with Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez in the United States.

Rogers, who is a member of the IPAC advisory group, said members’ concerns ranged from human rights issues, to climate change, and supply chain diversification.

“The thing that brings them together is a recognition that China presents some challenges for the world today, and as parliamentarians they want to come together to find ways to address those challenges,” he said.

Ardern has not yet responded to the letter from Wall and O’Connor, or the previous letter from Law.

Letter to Jacinda Ardern – … by Laura Walters

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