The Chinese attack on democratic freedoms in Hong Kong is not just an issue of foreign affairs but one that directly endangers every Canadian citizen as well, according to Hong Kong democracy advocates.
The special parliamentary committee on Canada-China relations heard Tuesday firsthand accounts from four activists of being beaten, abused, threatened and targeted by Chinese actors for their advocacy of democracy in Hong Kong amid an increasingly aggressive global power campaign by Beijing.
The advocates, several of whom also hold Canadian citizenship, spoke in the context of China’s implementation of a sweeping national security law that criminalizes all forms of dissent and that Beijing claims gives it authority to criminalize speech critical of China by anyone abroad.
“Anyone anywhere in the world who criticizes the Chinese or Hong Kong government could be considered a criminal under this vaguely worded provision,” said Gloria Y. Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, which links 16 Canadian organizations advocating for Hong Kong.
“China has extradition treaties with many countries … Our government must take this grave threat to Canadian safety seriously.”
“We’re not safe even in Canada,” added Davin Wong, former president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union who says he fled from the city to Canada after being beaten by Chinese officials earlier this year.
“The fear is real.”
Amnesty International Canada published a report earlier this year warning of “relentless” and “disturbing” cases of Chinese interference against activists in Canada.
Alex Neve, secretary general of the group, cited that report repeatedly and warned the targeting behaviour has been going on in Canada for years with little action from the Canadian government.
“It’s getting worse, not better,” he said.
The former British colony was handed over to Beijing under a legally binding international agreement that stated its residents would continue to be allowed to enjoy democratic rights.
China has no democratic rights, including no freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly and no independent judiciary, and instead routinely imprisons dissidents for criticizing the regime.
The Chinese Communist Party has been steadily expanding its influence and control over Hong Kong affairs since the handover but began doing so in force in 2014, the activists said, following widespread pro-democracy protests.
Along with the implementation of the national security law and the resulting brutal wave of activist arrests by law enforcement in Hong Kong, the region’s leader, Carrie Lam, postponed elections scheduled for next month for one year and disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates.
That move prompted a joint statement from the foreign ministers of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance condemning the “unjust disqualification of candidates and disproportionate postponement of Legislative Council elections.”
China quickly rejected that criticism and accused the allies of “unwarranted” interference.
While the Canadian government earlier this year did suspend its extradition treaty with Hong Kong and barred sensitive exports to the territory, officials have so far refused to levy Magnitsky sanctions against any top Chinese or Hong Kong officials for violating human rights with the crackdown.
The four activists warned that what has been done so far is inadequate.
“If Canada, with its long history of defending human rights, is not willing to stand with partners in defence of Hong Kong, then those values we believe in will be degraded,” said Aileen Calverley, co-founder and trustee of Hong Kong Watch.
“For too long, Carrie Lam and Chinese Communist Party officials have been able to act with impunity.”
The four witnesses urged the government to take several specific actions against China: implement Magnitsky sanctions, endorse the appointment of a United Nations special rapporteur on Hong Kong, and offer an expedited path to permanent residency for Hong Kongers seeking asylum.
They also urged the creation of new laws prohibiting foreign interference in Canadian political institutions, media and other democratic institutions, citing efforts by Chinese officials to mobilize the diaspora in Canada to target critics of the regime.
Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, cited a recent interview done by a B.C. Chinese-language radio station with the Vancouver consul general, Tong Xiaoling, as an example.
Wong called Chinese foreign interference a “deeply rooted” danger and said other countries have moved to limit the ability of Beijing’s officials to attempt to spread influence abroad.
One recent example is Australia, which passed a law targeting foreign interference in 2018 that criminalizes covert, deceptive or threatening activities targeting democracy in that country and also requires a new registry of lobbyists for foreign governments, among other things.
Fung said that while Hong Kong advocates have long been worried about creeping Chinese crackdowns, the national security law should bring home the severity of the danger posed to democracy abroad.
“When China can break the promises to Hong Kong, it can do it to any other country in the world.”