August 7, 2019 / 10:50 AM / a month ago

New Zealand rebukes China over freedom of speech after student scuffle

WELLINGTON (Reuters) - New Zealand has rebuked Chinese envoys for praising pro-Beijing students who scuffled last week with supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement on a university campus, a news website said on Wednesday.

China’s consul general in Auckland praised the “spontaneous patriotism” of some Chinese students who opposed a group hanging Hong Kong independence posters at the University of Auckland. Police said they were investigating the incident.

Foreign ministry officials met China’s representatives in New Zealand on Monday to reiterate that freedom of expression would be upheld and maintained, the website Newsroom said.

“The government has rebuked China over its recent comments and actions where it sought to suppress freedom of speech and voiced support for violent opposition to Hong Kong protesters in New Zealand,” it added.

A New Zealand foreign ministry spokeswoman confirmed the meeting but declined further comment. “Discussions took place,” she said in an email to Reuters.

China’s embassy in New Zealand and the foreign affairs ministry in Beijing did not immediately respond to a Reuters’ request for comment.

Hong Kong is embroiled in its worst political crisis in decades after two months of increasingly violent protests that pose one of the gravest challenges to the Communist Party in Beijing.

Last week, the pro-Hong Kong students who held the protest at the University of Auckland got into an altercation with some mainland Chinese students, Newsroom reported, adding that one student from Hong Kong was pushed.

Protests in support of Hong Kong’s independence movement were held on other New Zealand campuses.

A statement posted on the Chinese consulate’s website last week condemned activities that were “demonizing the images of China” and “inciting anti-China sentiment”.

Asked about the incident on Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said academic freedom was very important and would be upheld “without interference from foreign entities or from government”.

New Zealand has had a rocky relationship with top trading partner China in recent months after it criticized Beijing’s lending to Pacific islands and its security agency blocked Chinese tech giant Huawei from the country’s first 5G network.

Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Additional reporting by Michael Martina in Beijing; Editing by Darren Schuettler

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