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OTTAWA— The Canadian government moved Friday to censure China over a drastic national security law it imposed on Hong Kong, and says a new framework for Canada-China relations is in the works.
Two days after Beijing passed a new law that gives it more powers to crack down on political dissidents, foreign governments, non-governmental agencies and the media in Hong Kong, the federal government suspended a Canada-Hong Kong extradition treaty in protest.
Ottawa also suspended exports to Hong Kong of sensitive military and dual-use goods, such as rubber bullets and pepper spray, and is examining other steps including immigration measures to protect Hong Kong residents, said Foreign Affairs Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne.
Ottawa also changed travel advice for Hong Kong, warning that the new law puts Canadians at “increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.”
In an interview with the Star, Champagne said he has heard calls for a change to Canada’s approach to China but said he moved to draft new rules of engagement before the latest aggressive actions by Beijing, and that work continues “as the situation evolves.”
China enacted the national security law in a secretive process, without the participation of Hong Kong’s legislature, judiciary or people, and in violation of its international obligations, Champagne said.
“This is a significant step back from the freedom and liberty that people have enjoyed and that made Hong Kong what it is today as a global trading and financial hub,” he said.
Champagne said 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong will have to make individual assessments about their situations there, adding it “is not for me” to tell them to leave but that they are welcome to return to Canada. Champagne said it “remains to be seen” how the Hong Kong security law will be applied and interpreted, but he noted police are already using it to make arrests.
He declined to elaborate on what it all might mean for trade and diplomatic relations with Beijing, other than to set out what he said are “three cornerstones” for a new framework: “very clear rules and standards that will frame that relationship; Canadian interests to frame that relationship; and values and principles including human rights.”
Canadian diplomats are protected under the Vienna Convention, he said, and “there would be no reason for Canada to change our policy in terms of engaging with civil society or opposition legislators and lawmakers.” Still, Canada is discussing with other embassies how diplomats should operate under the new law, Champagne said, adding it is important that Canada “speak up for the people of Hong Kong but certainly not to endanger their safety.”
Champagne said it is clear that, despite international criticism, China’s central government has refused to change course on Hong Kong, or in its dealings with countries who dare to cross it.
China arrested Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in 2018 in what Canada views as retaliation for the RCMP arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request.
“We’ve seen them (Chinese authorities) employ some coercive diplomacy, arbitrary detention. We need a new framework,” said Champagne.
“What we’re facing as Canada, on the other hand, is not unlike what a number of countries in Europe are facing, whether the E.U. as a whole or even a number of countries, the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, the Netherlands,” said Champagne. “A lot of people had to rethink their relationship.”
“What the minister is saying clearly reflects that thinking is evolving in Ottawa,” said Guy St-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, who called the new measures “significant.”
“I think it’s a positive change,” he said. “I think the status of Hong Kong has changed forever. Hong Kong has to be considered now as a full part of China,” and he predicted the Trudeau government’s moves would lead “down the road to broader trade and commercial implications.”
St-Jacques said any overhaul of how Canada engages with China should reassess government investment in “feel good” projects, as well as co-operation in the scientific and technology sectors including artificial intelligence. St-Jacques said “clearly China is eager to steal as much as possible” and a lot of that technology can “be used for the control of people.”
St-Jacques said a new framework should also see Canada redirect federal trade resources that were increased in last year’s budget for China, and move them to other growing markets in the Asia-Pacific; increase inspection on Chinese goods coming into the country; efforts to do more business with Taiwan; and to look ahead to the next Olympic ceremonies in China and co-ordinate with allies to send a message to China’s central governing authorities that its actions will no longer be tolerated.
China on Friday replied to its critics such as Australia, saying Hong Kong is a matter of China’s internal affairs and warned of possible countermeasures.
Champagne, however, turned aside a question about whether he fears consequences for Kovrig and Spavor in the wake of Canada’s measures, saying Ottawa’s actions come as “no surprise” to Beijing.
“You cannot make a link between the fact that Canada is standing up and speaking up for human rights and reviewing arrangements that were in place at the time when Hong Kong was in a place of freedom and liberty,” he said. “The two Michaels are detained arbitrarily.”
Their arrest “has become an issue of international concern,” he said, and is seen by other countries as “two citizens of liberal democracies being arbitrarily detained. They’re concerned because today they are Canadians, tomorrow they could be from another nationality.”
Although the value of Canadian military exports to Hong Kong is relatively small — just $20,580 in 2018 — Champagne said the export ban covers sensitive and dual-use goods and exports “that have been going to the Hong Kong police for, as far as I know, a number of years.”
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“It is not a symbolic gesture,” but a “protective measure,” he said.
The Canadian government is still weighing whether to accept or facilitate asylum requests by Hong Kong democracy activists. At least 46 Hong Kong citizens have already filed refugee claims here in the past year.
In addition, Canada could extend the allowable stays and create a new route for Hong Kong visitors to seek citizenship in Canada, as the U.K. and Australia have said they will try to do for Hong Kong emigrés, but there was no announcement on that front yet.
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