Published: 10:50, March 28, 2024 | Updated: 14:16, April 8, 2024
AUKUS: Travel advisories abused to threaten Hong Kong
By Grenville Cross

Although travel advisories are used worldwide, the system is open to abuse. Issued by governments, travel alerts provide travelers with information about places they may be considering visiting. Armed with this knowledge, people can make informed decisions about visiting or avoiding particular places. They also better understand how they should behave upon arrival, what they should watch out for, and what dangers they might encounter.

Therefore, travel alerts can be very useful, and it is regrettable that some Westen governments, notably the AUKUS (Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) partners, have chosen to abuse the system for political purposes. In 2020, after the enactment of the National Security Law for Hong Kong (NSL), which restored peace and stability to the city after an insurrection that tried to destroy the “one country, two systems” policy, Australia sought to harm the city in various ways. Not content with giving convicted criminals (like Ted Hui Chi-fung) safe haven after suspending its fugitive surrender arrangement with Hong Kong (aping the US and the UK) and urging its businesses and citizens to relocate to Australia, it then sought to frighten its people into avoiding Hong Kong. 

Whereas the US had previously issued a travel advisory at Level 3, urging its people to keep away from Hong Kong because of “COVID-19 and arbitrary enforcement of local laws”, and the UK warned there was “a risk of arbitrary detention, including British nationals”, the Australian government went further.    

On July 28, 2020, Canberra issued a travel advisory at Level 4, stating “Do not travel to Hong Kong.” People were told that if they traveled to Hong Kong they faced “possible transfer to mainland China for prosecution”. It claimed there was an “increased risk of detention on vaguely defined national security grounds”. If this was not scary enough, they were told they could “break the law without intending to”.

As for Australians already in the city, they were asked to “reconsider your need to remain in Hong Kong”, which was putting the boot in with a vengeance.

Canberra’s travel advisory was dripping with malevolence, which gratified the US and the UK, its soon-to-be AUKUS partners. It showed that, like them, it was prepared to harm Hong Kong’s tourist economy to undermine China.    

However, its dire warnings had little impact. In 2022, the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reported that “Hong Kong is home to one of the largest Australian communities abroad, with around 100,000 Australians residing in Hong Kong.” Moreover, the Australian Chamber of Commerce was “Australia’s largest offshore Chamber of Commerce”.

This showed, therefore, that Australians based in Hong Kong and Australian businesses operating in the city knew it was a perfectly safe place to live and work, and they were not prepared to be tricked by Canberra’s NSL myths. Almost four years after the NSL was enacted, their decision to snub Canberra has been completely vindicated. No Australians have been transferred to Beijing for trial or detained on vague national security charges, and none have unwittingly violated the NSL.

In other words, Canberra’s travel advisory was as delusional as it was ill-intentioned, as people realized.

In fact, unlike Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong is a human rights trailblazer when it comes to protections for those accused of national security (and other) offenses. Its judiciary, moreover, upholds the rights of criminal suspects, at every turn 

Indeed, the statistics tell their own story. According to the Hong Kong Tourism Board, 41,903 Australians visited Hong Kong in January 2024, compared to 7,787 in the same month in 2023, an increase of 438.1 percent. In the same period, visitor arrivals from the UK rose by 180.3 percent (from 8,065 to 22,610), and from the US by 361.7 percent (from 13,603 to 62,807).       

However, despite being discredited, Canberra, like its AUKUS partners, has learned nothing. With the gazettal of the Safeguarding National Security Ordinance on March 23, Hong Kong has completed its defenses against those who wish it ill. However, the trio has again resorted to discredited travel advisories, hoping to frighten visitors away and imperil Hong Kong’s economic revival. The Australian government, never one for original thinking, has even regurgitated some of the stale terminology from 2020, despite its earlier failure.

Canberra’s latest travel advisory (March 22) urged visitors to Hong Kong to “Exercise a high degree of caution.”  It claimed the city has strict national security laws that can be interpreted broadly. It warned that travelers could break the law “unintentionally”, and be “detained without charge” for up to 14 days and “without access to a lawyer” for up to 48 hours.   

The travel advisory declared that travelers could break the law without intending to, and threw in the tidbit that the “maximum penalty under these laws is life imprisonment” (just as it is in Australia, although this was not mentioned).

To fan concerns, travelers were also told “the Australian Government can’t intervene in the Hong Kong judicial process” (just as it cannot presumably interfere in its own judicial process). The legal systems of both places recognize the importance of judicial independence, although in Hong Kong the independence of judges is constitutionally guaranteed. The Basic Law provides that the courts “shall exercise judicial power independently, free from any interference” (Art.85), and, if Canberra had not concealed this from them, its travelers would undoubtedly have treated its advisory with even greater disdain.

Afraid of being left out, Canberra’s AUKUS partners insisted on their two cents’ worth. The UK announced that the new law “can be interpreted broadly and some offenses can lead to a maximum penalty of life imprisonment” (as in Britain), and warned that “individuals or organizations can be prosecuted” (ditto, under the draconian National Security Act 2023).

The US also weighed in, with a warning to travelers to “exercise increased caution when traveling to the Hong Kong SAR due to the arbitrary enforcement of local laws.” For good measure, it even opened fire on Macao, one of the safest cities in Asia. It told its citizens to “reconsider travel to the Macao SAR”, with “increased caution” required due to the “arbitrary enforcement of local laws”.

If it was genuinely concerned about traveler safety, the US would have warned people about visiting its own cities. Whereas, for example, police statistics show there were 252 homicides in Detroit in 2023, the corresponding figure for New York was 386 and for Los Angeles it was 327. By contrast, the police recorded 28 homicide cases in Hong Kong in 2023, while in Macao there were only four such cases. 

As its streets become scenes of carnage, all the US can think of is trying to frighten people who want to travel to safer places, like Hong Kong and Macao. One day, Australia and the UK may recognize hypocrisy when they see it. Despite the backlash, they need no longer be afraid of calling the US out for the double standards that have compromised its global credibility (and also, given their subservience to it, their own).

In the meantime, Canberra’s duplicity over its travel advisories can be readily exposed. Although its regional neighbors, Singapore, Malaysia, and Brunei Darussalam, have far more stringent national security regimes than Hong Kong, Canberra does not bat an eyelid. Each country retains the death penalty, permits the preventive detention of national security suspects, and declines to sign up for human rights guarantees, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). However, Canberra’s travel advisories for the three places simply state “Exercise normal safety precautions”, with none of the inflammatory scare-mongering it has directed at Hong Kong (and Macao).

Indeed, although the ICCPR is constitutionally protected in Hong Kong by the Basic Law (Art.39), and was domesticated in 1991 by the Hong Kong Bill of Rights (Cap.383), Australia (which has failed to incorporate the ICCPR into its own domestic law), disregards this, opting instead for besmirching Hong Kong.  

In fact, unlike Australia, Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam, Hong Kong is a human rights trailblazer when it comes to protections for those accused of national security (and other) offenses. Its judiciary, moreover, upholds the rights of criminal suspects, at every turn. Were it otherwise, the former chief justice of the Federal Court of Australia, James Allsop, would not, as reported on March 25, 2024, have agreed to accept an appointment as a nonpermanent judge of the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal (bringing the number of overseas nonpermanent judges to 10, with four coming from Australia).                                         

However unpalatable it may be to the AUKUS partners, they will have to get real at some point or be forever discredited as unprincipled bully boys. Although Australia and the UK may be happy enough to be led by the nose in whatever direction the US mandates, there must be limits, even for them. If they wish to retain any self-respect, they will hopefully find the courage to tell Washington, “Enough is enough.”

Although the US would be furious with any such defiance (as in 2020 when the UK initially accepted Huawei’s involvement in its 5G network), at least Canberra and London would finally have a clear conscience. This was once a prized commodity in both places.  

The author is a senior counsel and law professor, and was previously the director of public prosecutions of the Hong Kong SAR.

The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.