New Zealand Deputy Prime Minister Bill English has scrapped a meeting with two senior Hong Kong democracy advocates on the advice of his foreign office, who said it would be “diplomatically sensitive.”
Friday’s cancellation, on the eve of a planned meeting with former Hong Kong legislator Martin Lee and former colonial Chief Secretary Anson Chan, signifies a delicate relationship with Communist Party–ruled China, Reuters reports.
Lee, who has championed democracy in Hong Kong for decades, told Reuters, “This is the first time it’s happened to me like this, a meeting was canceled at the last minute.”
“We were told that the Chinese embassy had been busy behind the scenes telling people not to meet with us,” Chan told Radio Television Hong Kong.
New Zealand and Australia are both vying for export opportunities into the lucrative Chinese market but the Oceanian neighbors have differed in their approach to managing Chinese sensibilities.
Last week, Reuters reports, Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Julie Bishop met with Chan and Lee, who advocated protection of Hong Kong’s autonomy in front of the Australian Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee.
But New Zealand — the first Western country to sign a Free Trade Agreement with China in 2008 — appears to be treading cautiously.
The snub comes amid rising tensions between China and Hong Kong. The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” arrangement, affording it freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. When China proposed reforms to Hong Kong’s electoral system in 2014, protesters took to the streets to call for full democracy, and the seeds of a full-blown independence movement were sown.
On Wednesday, dozens of pro-Beijing lawmakers walked out of the Hong Kong legislature to prevent the swearing-in of two pro-independence activists, setting the scene for a new constitutional crisis.