The authorities in China are framing Hong Kong protesters in a similar manner to their portrayal of the Muslim "terrorists" of Xinjiang. Australia must warn China that treating Hong Kong like Xinjiang would be an act of self-harm.
Fast forward a few weeks or months from now and you could expect to hear Foreign Minister Marise Payne raise "Australia's strong concerns about reports of mass detentions" in Hong Kong. Expect her to declare China's crackdown in the former British colony as "deeply disturbing" - or worse. For now, those remarks, made last weekend by Payne, refer to Xinjiang. However, Beijing is increasingly treating Hong Kong as it does the persecuted province of northwest China.
Documents leaked to the New York Times by "a member of the Chinese political establishment" show the Chinese authorities referring to Xinjiang Muslims as a "virus" that needs to be cured; in Hong Kong, members of the security forces refer to the protesters as "cockroaches". Such dehumanising language is a precursor of sweeping persecution by totalitarian powers throughout history.
Beijing has branded Xinjiang's Muslims as terrorists due to the deadly attacks of a handful of extremists, which peaked in the May 2014 killing of 43 people. What began as restrictions on freedom of movement are now mass detention in camps. Often described as "arbitrary", the imprisonment of over a million Muslims is anything but.
The 400 pages of leaked documents illuminate Xi Jinping's promise to show "absolutely no mercy" in Xinjiang and to use all "organs of dictatorship" in implementing "painful, interventionary treatment". Last weekend in Hong Kong, People's Liberation Army counter-terrorism troops worked on the streets, cleaning-up debris: this move is seen at least as a warning shot and at most as the 'soft launch' prior to the deployment of the PLA in a more combative role.
By denying organisers permits for intended rallies, every assembly by protesters is illegal, hence the mildest of supporters of the cause have become criminalised often for nothing more than their presence. What were primarily student protests are now citizens' protests, encompassing workers, school kids and retirees. The rise of white-collar support - lunchtime levellers, if you like - is a new development, with suited protesters occupying CBD streets during their breaktime.
Hong Kong has long been self-dubbed "Asia's World City", but more relevantly it is China's World City. Economically and socially, Hong Kong is the mainland's global gateway. Virtually every middling-to-major power in the Asia-Pacific region has significant interests in Hong Kong.
But no nation's stake matches China's. Hong Kong's current failings are an embarrassment to Beijing, where dreams of the "One country, two systems" concept being applied to Taiwan in the future are now dissolving amid Hong Kong's nightmare.
Australia's interests in Hong Kong are significant. Before the worst happens, Canberra's diplomatic channels should remind Beijing that the territory holds close to 100,000 Australians and at least 600 Australian-owned businesses.
It is the responsibility of foreign nations - particularly a local power which is deeply invested in the Asia-Pacific region, like Australia - to caution Beijing against a Xinjiang-style crackdown on Hong Kong that would set back China's rise years if not decades through international economic sanctions and political castigation. Beijing needs to feel the weight of the outside world as it considers whether to repress or negotiate in Hong Kong.
- Paul Letters is a journalist and novelist who lived in Hong Kong for 18 years. His most recent novel is The Slightest Chance.