Dunedin couple embroiled in Hong Kong protest

Pro-democracy protesters in Kowloon, Hong Kong, last week. Photo: Errol Chave
Pro-democracy protesters in Kowloon, Hong Kong, last week. Photo: Errol Chave
Dunedin couple Rona and Errol Chave had a more action-packed stopover in Hong Kong last week than they could have imagined, finding themselves embroiled in the city's pro-democracy protests.

Visiting on their way back from a holiday in Wales, the Chaves knew there were demonstrations in the city but thought they were confined to Hong Kong island rather than where they were staying in Kowloon.

However, they soon found otherwise when they saw a crowd assembling outside their hotel and donning protective hard hats.

''The crowd was quite significant,'' Mr Chave said.

''We struck up a conversation with a couple of them and one offered me a mask and asked if I would like to join in.''

None of the protesters the couple saw were armed but many were carrying umbrellas, to the initial mystification of the Chaves.

''They would put up a circle of umbrellas, and then another circle, and then a couple on top, and then from out of the top a hand would emerge holding a can of spray paint, which I thought was a very innovative way of disrupting things.''

The protests they saw were large but orderly, Mr Chave said.

The Chaves left Hong Kong just before the territory's airport was closed by violent clashes between demonstrators and police.

University of Otago political scientist Robert Patman said targeting the airport had internationalised a situation that had been rumbling away domestically for some months.

The plight of the city seemed to be getting much worse and the crisis was entering a critical phase, he said.

''There have been some ominous developments in the past couple of days, with armed Chinese military contingents being moved to the border, which seems to be sending a message to the protesters.''

The escalation of tensions posed a foreign policy dilemma for the New Zealand Government, which needed to balance the importance of China as a trading partner, the importance of Hong Kong to the world economy and New Zealand's commitment to democratic freedoms.

''It goes to the heart of what is sometimes a delicate relationship between New Zealand and China,'' Prof Patman said.

''New Zealand wants a fruitful economic relationship with China, but not at any cost ... It reserves the right to defend its interests and values, and we saw this over the Huawei controversy.

''I think New Zealand will try to calibrate its response in a way that is not seen as unfriendly to China, but also is seen as expressing solidarity with freedom of expression and the right of people to have some say in determining their own future.''


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