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The fourth iteration of the University of Auckland ‘Lennon Wall’ which was torn down again on Tuesday. Photo: We Are Hong Konger Facebook page

Hong Kong, mainland Chinese tensions flare again at New Zealand university

  • Rally in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong interrupted by Beijing supporter
  • Lennon Wall destroyed as differences deepen between the community

Tensions between different groups of New Zealand’s Chinese community flared again on Tuesday during a rally organised in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.

About 100 people, including opposition MP David Seymour, attended the two-hour rally at the University of Auckland. The event was organised by students opposing the now-suspended extradition bill, legislation that would allow suspects of serious crimes to be sent from Hong Kong to other jurisdictions, including mainland China.

The largely peaceful rally was briefly interrupted by an unidentified pro-Beijing supporter, who held up a placard that read: “Hong Kong independence mob”. He left after a confrontation with one of the rally-goers, which was filmed by other attendees.

“I can feel there is increasing tension,” Serena Lee, from rally organiser the We Are Hong Konger group, said in a video of the event on the group’s Facebook page. “We’re actually opposing the extradition bill. But they [mainland students] see this as an action to oppose the Chinese government.”

A “free Tibet flag” at the University of Auckland rally in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong. Photo: Tibetans in New Zealand Facebook page

Lee declined an interview request from the South China Morning Post.

This was the second confrontation at the university over the disturbances in Hong Kong. Last week mainland and Hong Kong students clashed over a “Lennon Wall” – a display of messages on Post-it notes that have been a feature of the protests in the city – as it was being set up on campus by Lee and fellow students. During the scuffle, Lee was allegedly pushed to the ground.

On Tuesday the Lennon Wall at the university was destroyed again, according to the rally organisers.

Lennon Walls and anti-extradition bill protests have been taking place on campuses in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. They have become flashpoints for a range of issues that have gone beyond the Hong Kong protests and included Beijing’s interference in local politics as well as Tibetan independence.

Edric Liu, one of the mainland students involved in the confrontation with Lee, who is from Hong Kong, accused the rally organisers of using the event to promote separatism in a bid to divide the country. In a written interview with the Post he said attendees had been photographed holding a flag commonly known as the “free Tibet flag”.

“This event is using the guise of a rally to promote separatism, deliberately tarnish the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, as well as Hong Kong police, and make excuses for the rioters’ mob behaviour,” he said.

Liu said he and his two friends were cooperating with an investigation by the university into last week’s incident. The Chinese consulate in Auckland issued a statement supporting their actions, which prompted a letter from Seymour, who also addressed the rally on Tuesday.

“The consulate general’s comments encouraged disruptive and violent behaviour which undermines authorities’ upholding the rule of law here in New Zealand, and therefore our internal affairs,” Seymour’s letter said.

Students hold placards during a protest at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, on July 31. Photo: EPA-EFE

Local media reported on Wednesday that the New Zealand government had raised concerns with the Chinese embassy over a statement released by the consulate that supported the mainland students who started the confrontation, as well as other instances of Beijing interfering in local affairs.

In response, an unnamed Chinese embassy diplomat told local media that the consulate statement had been misinterpreted and was asking students to express their views within the law and regulations.

The government’s concerns were echoed by others in New Zealand’s Chinese community, who are now at the centre of Beijing’s efforts to increase its influence in New Zealand.

Tze Ming Mok, a New Zealand researcher and writer on race relations, said the country’s Chinese community was diverse, with groups arriving at different times in its history. There was a divide over cultural differences between recent arrivals from mainland China and those who had been in the country longer, she said.

Economic factors were also at play, according to Mok, who traces her own roots to Malaysia and Singapore. China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner, with trading volumes reaching NZ$28 billion (US$18.3 billion) in 2018, according to the country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Capital from mainland China had become a strong economic force that influenced the Chinese community in New Zealand, Mok said. Many in the community, as well as organisations, were reluctant to speak out on political or human rights issues as they were worried about repercussions, she said.

“New Zealand is a small country, and its institutions tend to be vulnerable to large powers with deep pockets,” Mok said.

“But what’s happening in Hong Kong, people see these protests … I think that has inspired a little bit more of bravery from the community.”

Those who do speak out in support of anti-government protesters in Hong Kong have also faced online harassment, mostly from mainland Chinese internet trolls. The group of students at the University of Auckland who set up the Lennon Wall said they had been threatened and spammed online after speaking out about last week’s incident.

Another Facebook page for Chinese people from Hong Kong in the country – called New Zealand Hong Konger – had received similar treatment, according to an administrator of the page who asked to remain anonymous because of safety fears.

She provided screen captures of some of the messages, including ones that threatened violence and criticised those supporting the Hong Kong protesters as “America’s grandsons”, with the term “grandson” used in a derogatory way.

“It is also interesting to see New Zealand-born Chinese remain publicly silent in this discussion, as they worry about the consequences they face,” she said.

The administrator said New Zealand’s Hong Kong Chinese community was much smaller than the group from the mainland. “We need to work with other, non-Chinese groups, or we would be easily outnumbered in any quarrels or arguments like this,” she said.