Democratic governments stepped up retaliation against China over its security crackdown in Hong Kong, as France and Germany proposed EU countermeasures for the first time and Australia suspended its extradition treaty with the territory.
Canberra also warned its citizens against travelling to Hong Kong where they could be “deported or face possible transfer to mainland China for prosecution under mainland law” after sweeping measures were rushed into law last week by Beijing to quell pro-democracy protests in the territory.
The legislation allows authorities to punish loosely defined crimes such as subversion, campaigning for secession, terrorism and colluding with “external elements” to endanger national security.
Scott Morrison, Australian prime minister, also said Hong Kong citizens in Australia could have their skilled-worker or student visas extended by five years, with a pathway to permanent residency.
Paris and Berlin are pressing the EU to ban the export of police equipment such as tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong. They also want the bloc’s 27 members to give long-term refuge to political activists fleeing repression in the territory and to grant scholarships to more Hong Kong students.
The measures, intended to bolster Hong Kong civil society, fall well short of sanctions against China but are a tentative first step towards the “very negative consequences” Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, threatened last month if Beijing pressed ahead with the national security law.
The proposals have attracted support from other EU member states and are likely to be discussed at a meeting of the bloc’s foreign ministers on Monday, diplomats said.
There has been a sharp chill in relations between Beijing and western capitals over China’s aggressive diplomatic response to the coronavirus and breach of its undertakings to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy. The latest moves could point to a more concerted western response to the security law.
The US has already taken economic countermeasures by paring back the special trading privileges it afforded Hong Kong following the handover from British rule.
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said on Thursday that its relationship with the US “was facing its most serious challenge since diplomatic relations were established”. But he insisted that his country “has never had the intention of challenging or replacing the US and has no intention of entering into total confrontation with the US”.
The UK government has said it is ready to offer the right to live and work in Britain to up to 3m Hong Kong citizens. But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, has drawn criticism at home for failing to take a tougher line on China over Hong Kong. The Franco-German proposals have emerged now because many EU countries have studied the law more fully since its publication last week and concluded that its impact will be severe, diplomats said.
“The idea is: ‘How can we support Hong Kong civil society,’” said one European official of the proposals. “We see also the interests of European business and citizens in Hong Kong at stake — and there could be consequences also for European citizens outside Hong Kong, because the law has an extraterritorial scope.”
The new security law allows the Hong Kong chief executive to handpick judges for national security trials, while “serious” or “complex” cases can be sent across the border to be tried in mainland courts under Chinese law.
Mr Morrison said the “national security law constitutes a fundamental change of circumstances in respect to our extradition agreement with Hong Kong”.
On Thursday evening, Mr Morrison held a video summit with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, in which Mr Abe expressed “serious concern” about the Hong Kong crackdown.
In a sign of how China’s assertive moves are provoking a response in the region, the two leaders issued a statement welcoming a deeper security relationship between Australia, Japan, the US and India, a grouping known as the Quad.
Foreign ministers from the so-called “Five Eyes” security alliance, which includes the US, the UK, Canada and New Zealand, also held talks on the national security law on Thursday.
“China’s decision to pass a new national security law for Hong Kong has fundamentally changed the environment for international engagement there,” said Winston Peters, New Zealand’s foreign minister.