New Zealand cancels meeting with Hong Kong democracy advocates on 'diplomatic' concerns

By Reuters/Charlotte Greenfield   October 20, 2016 | 10:33 pm PT
New Zealand cancels meeting with Hong Kong democracy advocates on 'diplomatic' concerns
Veteran Chinese democracy advocate Martin Lee and student leader Joshua Wong pose together in New York September 22, 2015. Photo by Reuters/Daniel Bases
New Zealand has been more careful recently to not offend China for export opportunities in the Asian giant.

New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English cancelled a meeting with two senior Hong Kong democracy supporters this week on advice from his foreign office, he said on Friday, underscoring a delicate relationship with China.

English said in an emailed statement that he cancelled the meeting with former Hong Kong legislator Martin Lee and former colonial chief secretary Anson Chan on the eve of the appointment after he was advised it was "diplomatically sensitive".

New Zealand has been more careful recently than neighbour Australia not to offend China as both Pacific countries jostle for export opportunities in the Asian giant.

"This is the first time it's happened to me like this, a meeting was cancelled at the last minute," Lee told Reuters.

The former British colony of Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a "one country, two systems" formula which guarantees it freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland.

Street protests calling for full democracy for Hong Kong in 2014 presented Beijing with one of its biggest political challenges in decades. Dozens of pro-Beijing lawmakers walked out of the Hong Kong legislature on Wednesday to prevent the swearing-in of two pro-independence activists, setting the scene for a new constitutional crisis.

Lee has for decades campaigned for democracy for Hong Kong. Chan has said China should trust Hong Kong people to pick their own leader.

China became New Zealand's largest trading partner after a Free Trade Agreement in 2008, making New Zealand the first western country to sign such a deal. Exports to China amounted to NZ$12.1 billion ($8.67 billion) in the year to June, which equates to 17 percent of New Zealand's exports.

English, who advised Lee and Chan of the cancellation by email, said that it was "not uncommon" for the Foreign Affairs Minister to advise on meetings with overseas visitors.

The Foreign Affairs office did not reply to a request for comment on its advice.

In contrast, Chan and Lee last week met with Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop and testified in front of the Australian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee about protecting Hong Kong's autonomy.

Opposition Labour Party legislator David Shearer, who spoke with Chan and Lee earlier this week, said Chinese officials had approached him expressing "concern" about the meeting.

"It's not in New Zealand's interest not to go through with a meeting because of persuasion of pressure from another country," Shearer said.

There were strains in the two countries' relationship earlier this month when China rebuked New Zealand's defence minister at the opening of a high-profile security forum in Beijing, criticising his stance on tension in the disputed South China Sea.

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