In Hong Kong Turmoil, Canada Faces a Moral Test

Written By: Michael Jud
Posted on August 29th, 2019 

For the people of Hong Kong, the summer of 2019 is shaping up to be an unexpected turning point in the city’s history. For months now, hundreds of thousands of the city’s residents have been taking to the streets to denounce the administration of Carrie Lam, Beijing’s hapless local viceroy, and to call for an end to Lam’s politically disastrous extradition bill. With Lam having mounted a retreat on the extradition issue, the themes of 2014’s pro-democracy Umbrella Movement have now returned to the fore, albeit with a greater sense of urgency and a more substantial radical fringe than was on display five years ago.

For those accustomed to the relative peace and good order that once characterized the city, it is shocking to see familiar streets torn up and barricaded, smothered with tear gas and pepper spray. Not since the leftist riots of 1967 has the city been so wracked with political turmoil and violence. Back then of course it was Beijing-backed Communist agitation against the British colonial state that led to months of fighting and the deaths of dozens of people. But the circumstances of 2019 are rather different, as Beijing now finds itself defending an undemocratic status quo alongside much of the city’s business and political elite. The young radicals, suffice it to say, are not Communists anymore.

In many parts of the world, and in particular among Western democracies such as Canada, sympathy for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement runs deep. But the official response from Western governments has fallen far short of the courage displayed by the protesters themselves. United States President Donald Trump, who is fond of portraying himself as the implacable wrecker of China’s economy, has ironically taken to parroting Beijing’s line that the pro-democracy movement is merely a series of “riots” in need of forceful suppression. Meanwhile, other Western powers have hardly struck an inspiring tone, focusing on calls for “meaningful political dialogue” and respect for the rule of law. These timid statements may have earned angry rebukes from China’s attack dog diplomats, but they do not seem to have made much of an impression otherwise.

In these circumstances, it is disappointing to see Canada following the trend of milquetoast expressions of concern and calls for dialogue. Canada’s image-conscious Liberal government has spent much of the past four years cultivating the perception of Canada as a champion of liberal democratic values. Yet when confronted with the actions of powerful states that directly repudiate those values, Ottawa has had little to say. This is disappointing, but in the case of China unsurprising. The Liberal brain trust has long been preoccupied with cultivating Canada’s economic interests in China. Having presided over the collapse of Sino-Canadian relations since the arrest of Huawei heiress Meng Wanzhou last December, the Prime Minister and his advisors are no doubt wary of doing anything that could propel Canada to an even more prominent position on Beijing’s ‘Bad’ list.

But this says something significant about the nature of Canada’s engagement with China. For the better part of a year, Canada has been pilloried again and again by Chinese officials and the Chinese state media. Canada has been accused of everything from kidnapping and inhumane treatment to “hurting the feelings” of China and its people. In the risible editorials of Chinese Ambassador Lu Shaye we have been treated to a variety of weird aspersions on Canada’s integrity, including the assertion that Meng Wanzhou’s arrest was in fact a product of Canada’s devotion to “Western egotism” and white supremacy. And as Canada has meekly endured this abuse, China has continued to take actions that directly harm Canada’s interests, whether it be in the form of arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens, or punitive trade measures adopted under spurious pretenses.

The time has long since come for Canada to adopt a new approach and a clearer tone in its dealings with China. The events currently unfolding in Hong Kong offer a compelling opportunity for Canada to clearly and unequivocally assert its commitment democratic values. Canada should, first and foremost, condemn China’s failure to honour the promises of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law. Second, in view of the ongoing military buildup along the boundary of Hong Kong, Canada should make it emphatically clear that if China once again decides to deploy military forces against unarmed protesters, then Canada will no longer be able to view the country as a friend or partner.

The Chinese government knows that the world will be watching as events unfold in Hong Kong, and they are no doubt working to understand the degree of diplomatic blowback that can be expected under various scenarios. Clear and compelling words of support for the pro-democracy movement from countries like Canada speak directly to Beijing’s fears of the diplomatic isolation that could follow any move to violently crush the protest movement. While a relatively small country like Canada may be able to exert only limited influence over a behemoth like China, we have a responsibility to add our voice to the voices of other nations that are willing to stand in solidarity with pro-democracy forces wherever they may be.