The current unrest in Hong Kong over Chinese political pressure marks what Canada’s former top envoy to the region calls a “vital human rights test case” for Canadian foreign policy — and the response should be clear and coordinated with allied democracies if the U.S. does not take a stronger stand.
That will be particularly the case in the event of a violent crackdown on protesters by the Chinese military, says John Higginbotham, a senior fellow with the Centre for International Governance and Innovation and a former Canadian diplomat to China and Hong Kong.
Protests began roughly 11 weeks ago in opposition to an extradition bill, put forward by the Hong Kong government, that would have allowed the special administrative region to send individuals wanted by China to that country to face a court system with rampant political interference and the death penalty.
But the protests have morphed into broader pro-democracy demonstrations in response to escalating police violence and a refusal by the Hong Kong government to formally withdraw the extradition bill, despite insisting it will not be pursued.
Beijing has now begun billing the protests as “terrorism,” potentially setting the stage for state inference and the military’s deployment as part of a crackdown.
Higginbotham pointed to the fact there are some 300,000 Hong Kong residents with Canadian passports, making the threat of a repeat of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre particularly worrying for the government, and urged them to take a much more public stance in condemning any violence against protesters.
“Governments have fallen asleep and they’ve got formulas to use when talking about Hong Kong,” said Higginbotham, who formerly served as Canadian commissioner to Hong Kong as well as trade commissioner to Beijing during the 1990s.
“Now is the time to look at all the tools we have at our disposal, and if that means Canada retaliating in various ways against China rather than sitting like a deer in the headlights, then we have to do it.
“Hong Kong is a vital human rights test case for Canadian foreign policy.”
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the brutal military crackdown that is estimated to have killed some 10,000 pro-democracy demonstrators, many of them students, in 1989.
China’s escalation in rhetoric towards describing the current situation as “terrorism” and an “existential threat” has prompted concerns as to whether it will intervene and whether such a crackdown could again turn violent.
Hong Kong was first ceded by China to Britain in 1842 but reverted back to Chinese rule in 1997.
The deal laying out that handover stated that although Hong Kong would be part of communist China, it would keep its capitalist economy and partial democratic system for 50 years under what’s known as the “one country, two system” model of governance.
It is designated as a special administrative region, but the People’s Liberation Army of China maintains a garrison of some 6,000 soldiers in Hong Kong.
Those Chinese military members can intervene at the request of the Hong Kong government, the leader of which is chosen not by citizens but by an election committee made up of a significant contingent of allies to the Chinese government.
And as the unrest increasingly morphs into opposition to Carrie Lam, the Hong Kong leader selected by the committee in 2017, the question of whether that request for intervention will be made to China is coming under increasing scrutiny.
“We are extremely concerned about the situation in Hong Kong. We see the need for de-escalation,” said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday.
“We are calling for peace and order, for dialogue. We continue to be mindful and watchful of protecting Canadian interests and Canadians, specifically in Hong Kong, but we certainly call on China to be very careful and very respectful with how it deals with people who have legitimate concerns in Hong Kong.”
If China does interevene, another former diplomat says a unified response from liberal democracies is needed.
That could go beyond a statement to include things like suspending high-level visits and military cooperation — although it’s difficult to predict whether liberal democracies, including Canada, would be willing to risk angering China and jeopardizing their own economic interests by extension.
“It’s very difficult to influence the behaviour of sovereign countries and it’s particularly difficult to influence the behaviour of China,” said Phil Calvert, a senior fellow at the China Institute of the University of Alberta.
“Countries would do what they could, but there’s a limited scope of action that could actually change China’s behaviour on this and the ones that have possibly the most influence on this would be the United States and Britain.”
Calvert, who served as Canada’s deputy head of mission to China from 2004 to 2008, noted, though, that neither country is giving much indication at this point that they would act in the event of a violent crackdown.
“The messages from the United States have been pretty mixed on this, and the U.S. is an important player.”
U.S. President Donald Trump said on Tuesday that American intelligence suggested China was moving troops along the border with Hong Kong and added he hoped things would work out for everyone, “including China,” but he has said little about the unrest or the risk of a violent crackdown until now.
“The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation — very tough,” he told reporters.
“It’s a very tricky situation. I think it will work out and I hope it works out, for liberty. I hope it works out for everybody, including China … I hope it works out peacefully. I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed.”
For other countries like Canada, acting alone is unlikely to accomplish much, he added.
“What will be very important will be for like-minded countries to collectively respond,” Calvert said, while cautioning that retaliations such as sanctions would likely be difficult to mobilize given the economic interests of domestic businesses in China.
“I’m not sure how much that will actually happen,” he said.
“Frankly, it’s much easier to put in economic sanctions against countries when you don’t have much economic relations with them.”