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Canada treading carefully as China moves to impose Hong Kong security law: experts

Chinese parliament formally approves Hong Kong security bill
WATCH: China's parliament approved a decision on Thursday to go forward with national security legislation for Hong Kong that democracy activists in the city and Western countries fear could endanger its special autonomy and freedoms.

China moved to tighten control over Hong Kong on Thursday, as its legislature endorsed a controversial new national security law that many countries — including Canada — have warned will stomp on the liberties of Hong Kong citizens.

The bill has ignited protests in the former British colony and set off alarms around the globe. Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia issued a second joint statement on the situation on Thursday, reiterating their “deep concern” for Beijing’s decision to impose the law in Hong Kong.

READ MORE: China approves controversial Hong Kong security legislation

That came after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Canada is concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and called for de-escalation and for China to engage in “constructive talks” with Hong Kong on the matter.

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But Canada hasn’t gone as far as to say it will act in any way if the new security bill is imposed. When asked whether Canada would take further action, a spokesperson for Minister Francois-Philippe Champagne directed Global News to the joint statement issued by the four allies.

READ MORE: Canada, U.S., U.K. and Australia jointly reprimand China over Hong Kong security law

Charles Burton, an associate professor of political science at Brock University and senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, said the Canadian government’s response so far on Hong Kong “fits in” with its “overall approach” to Canada-China relations.

Relations have been particularly strained in the last few years, with the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, the detention of two Canadians in China and spats over the import of Canadian meat and canola products into China.

“We don’t want to say anything that the Chinese government would not like to hear, because we’re afraid that if we do so, that there will be retaliation by China and negative consequences for Canada,” he said.

Meng Wanzhou ruling and the potential political fallout
Meng Wanzhou ruling and the potential political fallout

Canada, for example, is currently dependent on China for sourcing highly sought-after personal protective equipment amid the novel coronavirus pandemic, Burton noted.

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“It’s conceivable the Chinese government could, on some spurious grounds, stop those materials from coming into Canada, resulting in even more unnecessary deaths,” he said.

Canada might also be concerned about retaliation against Canadian citizens living in Hong Kong, he added.

“Once the Hong Kong security law comes into effect, I think we have legitimate concerns as to whether the Chinese government will recognize the Canadian citizenship of those 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong and allow us to extend costs of protection to them or whether … the Chinese government will refuse to acknowledge that they are citizens of Canada,” he said.

Protesters rally against China’s proposed new security law
Protesters rally against China’s proposed new security law

The new security law for Hong Kong approved Thursday would forbid secessionist and subversive activity, as well as foreign interference and terrorism, once it comes into effect.

Critics say it represents a blow to the ‘one country, two systems’ governance model Hong Kong has operated under since it reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997. In cementing that transition, it was agreed that Hong Kong would maintain its democratic system and freedoms not enjoyed in mainland China — an agreement that was endorsed by Canada and others.

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“China’s proposals for a new national security law for Hong Kong lies in direct conflict with its international obligations under the principles of the legally-binding, UN-registered Sino-British Joint Declaration,” Canada, the U.S., the U.K. and Australia wrote in their second joint statement.

White House says Trump ‘displeased’ with China actions on Hong Kong
White House says Trump ‘displeased’ with China actions on Hong Kong

While he thinks it was a good idea for Canada and the other countries to issue that statement together and “have a united approach,” Burton argued the statement was “largely descriptive” and didn’t suggest the governments “will engage in any kind of meaningful response to what China is proposing to do in Hong Kong.”

“There is no ‘mutually acceptable accommodation,'” Burton said in reference to the statement’s language in calling for China to work with Hong Kong.

“The only right action is for China to withdraw this Hong Kong security act because it’s an illegal imposition over the guarantee of ‘one country, two systems’ and 50 years of no change that was agreed to internationally in 1997.”

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

Wenran Jiang of UBC’s School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, said he thought the statement did represent a “policy adjustment” for Canada.

“Canada [is] genuinely concerned about the well being of Hong Kong … but I think we also need to tread very carefully given the delicate situation,” he said.

READ MORE: Hong Kong legislature removes pro-democracy lawmakers from anthem bill debate

If Canada issues “severe threats,” it could have a “counter-productive impact,” Jiang argued.

“At the end of the day, China is no longer the China of the 1980s or one hundred years ago. It doesn’t have to listen to anybody,” he said.

“We actually don’t have any leverage. Not only Canada doesn’t … not U.K., not Australia, not United States … so you need to have a measured tone.

“I don’t think it’s black and white.”

Burton, however, said he would prefer to see [Canada] “proposing consequences.”
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“The Hong Kong situation is even more egregious than some of the other things that Canada seems to be peddling softly on,” he argued.

“I think it’s time for Canada to actually show some backbone, engage in some response to China’s violations of the rules-based international order, and have the courage to accept the consequences if China decides to use its economic leverage to retaliate against us.”

—With files from Global News’ Amanda Connolly, Kerri Breen and The Associated Press