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COMMENTARY: Ottawa equivocates as China imposes its will on Hong Kong

Will new unrest in Hong Kong spark an exodus to B.C.?
WATCH: There are growing questions as to whether the new unrest in Hong Kong will spark a new exodus to B.C and impact real estate values. Brad MacLeod reports.

The government of Canada claims that it stands with the people of Hong Kong on the eve of new Chinese laws on sedition and treason that are being imposed on the territory.

Well, sort of.

Foreign minister Francois-Philippe Champagne has joined Australia and the United Kingdom in expressing deep concern about what China is up to. But there has not been a whiff of anything substantive from Ottawa to counter Beijing on Hong Kong or anything else.

As bold as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gotten so far over China’s plan to crush dissent in the former British dependency was his declaration on Monday that “it is going to be important for the Chinese government to engage in constructive conversations with citizens of Hong Kong to ensure we de-escalate the tensions.”

No kidding. And fat chance.

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READ MORE: Trudeau says China must have ‘constructive’ talks with Hong Kong on new security bill

While Ottawa equivocates, China is moving with great haste to impose its will on Hong Kong. The new security laws, which were announced only days ago, are expected to be rubber-stamped by the National People’s Congress on Thursday without any discussions of any kind with people in Hong Kong, if you exclude those handpicked by China to speak for the city.

For Canada, there are complications aplenty beginning and ending with the saga of the Two Michaels and the house arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wangzhou while she awaits a decision of whether she will be extradited to face serious fraud charges in the U.S.

If the court decision on Meng expected Wednesday in Vancouver goes against her, the torrent of verbal abuse and threat of trade sanctions from Beijing will likely be far worse than anything Canada has heard yet.

A foretaste of what may be coming was provided Tuesday by China’s foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, who demanded Tuesday that Canada “release Ms. Meng and ensure her safe return to China at an early date to avoid more damage” to relations between the two countries.

READ MORE: China warns of ‘continuous harm’ to relations with Canada unless Meng Wanzhou is released

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Meng may only be round one. If there’s a harsh police or army clampdown in Hong Kong, a tug of war could develop between Beijing and Ottawa over the 300,000 Canadian citizens who now live there.

Until now, the prime minister has not elaborated on what, if anything, his government intends to do to assist them, their kin or the many other Hong Kong residents with Canadian connections if they ask for help.

As there are only a couple of flights a day still linking Hong Kong and Canada, if some sort of mass evacuation becomes necessary, fashioning an air bridge would be highly problematic without China’s cooperation.

Urging more dialogue, as the prime minister has done, is fine as a palliative for Canada’s collective conscience, as long as it is understood that such “feel good” expressions mean absolutely nothing for the people of Hong Kong or for China’s relations with Canada and the world. China has emphatically underscored that point many times in how it has spoken of Canada and, more recently, Australia.

The hardline Communist Party-owned Global Times warned Canberra this week of the “extreme dangers” the country faced because it was aligning itself with Washington.

If there was no shift in policy, China would deliver a “fatal blow” to Australia’s economy, the English language propaganda outlet said.

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Beijing bringing new security laws to Hong Kong this week
Beijing bringing new security laws to Hong Kong this week

In the same vein, it was announced last week in Beijing that China’s defence spending would jump a whopping 6.6 per cent per year. This follows a first quarter in which the country’s economy shrunk by 6.8 per cent because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Another stinging reminder of how China is impervious to diplomatic platitudes regarding its belligerent behaviour towards a long and growing list of countries came Wednesday when, as reported by the New York Times, the commander of the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong said that his troops were prepared to intervene to stop “all kinds of separatist forces” and undefined “external intervention forces.”

Maj.-Gen. Chen Daoxiang commands 10,000 troops in Hong Kong with many thousands more PLA soldiers based just up the road a few kilometres on the Chinese mainland.

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Worth remembering is that during the last years of British rule, the same garrison only required about 1,000 troops to maintain law and order in what was an overwhelmingly peaceful territory.

The reason so many soldiers are required now in the supposedly semi-autonomous dependency is not the subject of much debate. They are needed because China has turned so much of the Hong Kong population against it by ignoring the commitments it made in 1997 to allow “one country, two systems.” It was a treaty obligation that was to have left the territory with an unfettered judicial system and an open society until at least 2047.

The recent violence in Hong Kong and China’s pending legal interventions there might have received more attention elsewhere if there had not been the distraction of a string of serious and unserious coronavirus controversies in Britain, the U.S. and Canada.

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If Canada truly supports free speech and free courts in Hong Kong, it must move far beyond pointless palaver about how China should talk more with the people there because such talk achieves absolutely nothing.

READ MORE: Coronavirus pandemic drives home why Canada needs to loosen ties with China, former ambassador says

There are no good options regarding Hong Kong. As cruel and unfair as it is to state this, the fate of the noble advocates for democracy who bravely march in the streets is probably sealed. The best Canada can do is to offer a safe haven to the Canadians who live there so that they, at least, escape a ruthless police state with constant surveillance, mass detentions and reeducation camps in prospect.

Much of the world is becoming totally fed up with China. So are Canadians. After the dramatic events looming in Hong Kong, such sentiments are likely to grow.

To help countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and the Philippines avoid becoming the next Hong Kongs, the most obvious and best option is for Canada to stop hedging its bets and finally put some teeth in its much-boasted multilateralism ideals.

Canada must work far more closely with longstanding global partners and a few new ones to lessen trade dependence on China and urgently develop a cogent Indo-Pacific economic strategy.

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It should not exclude Beijing, but also no longer give it primacy or allow it to pay never any price for the insults and bullying that in the absence of serious pushback have become its ugly modus operandi.

Matthew Fisher is an international affairs columnist and foreign correspondent who has worked abroad for 35 years. You can follow him on Twitter at @mfisheroverseas