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For decades, Canada’s political, academic and corporate elites have been heavily invested in the belief that with engagement China could be coaxed into something resembling a rights-based, citizen-focused country.
Close ties have been established between universities here and there. Judges, lawyers, artists, journalists along with politicians from every level including school boards, have been part of exchanges. From some of the largest companies to the smallest, CEOs have fallen over themselves trying to gain a foothold in a market that they’ve largely failed to crack.
That policy of engagement with all of its hubris has failed spectacularly as the Chinese Communist Party blatantly proved with the imposition of a national security law in Hong Kong on the 23 rd anniversary of the former British colony’s return to Chinese control.
The law gives authorities new powers to punish “offences of secession, subversion, organization and perpetration of terrorist activities and collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
It allows for closed-door trials, hand-picked judges, wiretapping of suspects and the potential for suspects to be tried on the Chinese mainland.
Within hours, it was swiftly used to arrest Hong Kongers still willing to brave the streets in protest. Journalists covering the march were also targeted by police. It’s left academics wondering what it means for their ability to teach and do research.
The risks for the estimated 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong are now heightened, to say nothing of thousands of others arrested over the past year of protest. While Canada has yet to offer asylum, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland said last month that they will be “very, very welcome” to come home, the reality is complicated. COVID has reduced the number of flights and Hong Kong controls not only who enters the country, but who can leave it.
On July 1 when the law came into effect, Canada updated its travel advisory warning Canadians that they “may be at increased risk of arbitrary detention on national security grounds and possible extradition to mainland China.”
It’s because the powers grabbed by Chinese President Xi Jinping are so broad that, regardless of citizenship, anyone travelling through the Asian airport hub who has ever offered an opinion, signed a petition or attended a protest in Canada could be arrested.
“Right now I’m guilty of colluding with you,” Bill Chu, a democracy activist and founder of the Canadians for Reconciliation Society, said when we spoke this week. “It (the security law) is an open threat by China to the rest of the world. It’s difficult for Canada, but we need to address it in some better way.”
Whatever special relationship Canadians thought they had with China was already in tatters with the fallout from Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou following America’s extradition request.
Canadian Falun Gong practitioner Sun Qian has been sentenced to eight years in jail. The two Michaels — Spavor and Kovrig — remain in prison. Trade sanctions have come, gone and come again at China’s caprice, unfettered by signed international treaties or agreements.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced some bold first steps to protect our national security in ways that honour and respect human rights, diversity and the rule of law.
Canada’s long-standing extradition treaty with Hong Kong has been suspended. Canada doesn’t have a similar treaty with China. But extradition from Hong Kong to China is part of the new law. So, if China doesn’t respect the one country, two systems agreement signed with Britain before the handover, Canada has indicated it no longer recognizes the former colony as separate from China.
That means Canada also won’t export “sensitive goods” including military equipment to Hong Kong, just as it doesn’t ship those goods to China.
In making the announcement, Trudeau indicated that more measures including some related to immigration are coming.
Earlier this week, Chu and 19 other Canadians of Chinese descent wrote to Trudeau. Along with others, they urged asylum assistance for Hong Kong democracy activists facing prosecution and punitive action for human rights abusers in both China and Hong Kong, including seizing assets and denying their entry to Canada under the law with the unwieldy title of the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act.
They also urged his government to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with China that would be shared with and adhered to by all levels of government including municipalities and school boards.
Among the issues that it should address are Chinese government-linked investments in Canada, sponsorships in Canada including junkets and Confucius Institutes like the one in the Coquitlam school district where students are taught using only materials approved by the Chinese education ministry.
For years, Canadian politicians have relied on advice from the Chinese diaspora here to help pry open the doors to business and trade. Now, they need to lean on those communities’ members to better understand the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party and the aspirations of its authoritarian leader.
It bears emphasizing that Canada’s fight is not with the people of China. It is with their unelected, undemocratic and autocratic government and the Chinese Communist Party.
And while it may feel like as if we are caught in a vice between our ailing and quixotic neighbour (and biggest trade partner) to the south and Xi’s iron fist to the east, we are not alone in this.
Before the law was passed, Canada, Australia and Britain signed a joint statement condemning it. Since it has passed at least 22 other countries have registered their opposition including New Zealand, Germany, Japan, France and Sweden.
All are ready allies, which we’ll almost certainly need if China continues to lash out at its critics.