No foreign interference, says China, as Australia, New Zealand unite over human rights

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison with New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in Queenstown on May 31, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BEIJING - China said on Monday (May 31) it was firmly opposed to foreign interference after Australia and New Zealand, presenting a united front, expressed concerns over China's actions in Hong Kong and the north-western Xinjiang region.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin made the comment at a regular press briefing in Beijing in response to a question about the meeting between the prime ministers of Australia and New Zealand.

It was the first time they had met in person since the pandemic began 15 months ago.

China was the main topic at the post-meeting conference in Queenstown on Monday by Mr Scott Morrison and Ms Jacinda Ardern, who highlighted developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang as issues of concern, as well as the South China Sea, where China has continued to assert its dominance.

"The prime ministers expressed serious concern over developments in the South China Sea, including the continued militarisation of disputed features and an intensification of destabilising activities at sea," said a joint statement released after the meeting.

Asked about the stance of New Zealand, whose ties with China have strengthened, Ms Ardern said her country and Australia had "broadly been positioned in exactly the same place" over human rights in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

In April, Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta drew some criticism from Western nations when she said New Zealand was uncomfortable expanding its invocation of the Five Eyes alliance with Australia, Canada, the UK and the US beyond intelligence matters into wider policy statements.

Australia and New Zealand have starkly different bilateral ties with Beijing: Relations between China and Australia have reached their lowest point in years, with disagreements on an array of issues, including trade and diplomacy. Wellington has enjoyed relatively warmer ties, but has faced accusations across the Tasman Sea as being soft and having sold out to China.

Meanwhile, the Chinese authorities conducted a separate press briefing on Monday, focusing on human rights developments in the past five years.

China has aggressively hit back at criticism, insisting that it has a different definition of human rights from the West. Beijing considers poverty alleviation and improving its citizens' standards of living as rights to economic development.

"A happy life for the people is the greatest human right," said Mr Li Xiaojun of the State Council Information Office's Human Rights Bureau.

"The implementation of the action plan has brought the protection of the economic, social and cultural rights of the Chinese people to a new level," he told the media in Beijing.

China has achieved poverty reduction goals of the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development a decade ahead of schedule, Mr Li said, adding that the Chinese people "enjoy extensive and true democracy and freedom".

Officials also pointed to China's participation in the United Nations Human Rights Council.

"China advocates human rights dialogue and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect, opposes the politicisation of human rights and double standards, and opposes human rights interference in internal affairs," said the foreign ministry's special representative for human rights, Ms Li Xiaomei.

Beijing has come under widespread criticism from foreign governments and rights groups over its treatment of the ethnic Uighur population in Xinjiang.

Over one million are believed to have been detained in camps, which China insists are vocational training facilities to help the Muslim Uighur population escape poverty.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.