Trump lost the U.S. election to president-elect Joe Biden on Saturday after a tense four days of counting ballots in close, key races across the country.
While his administration has been marked by fierce criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and its refusal to respect global rules, the coming transition raises questions about what countries like Canada with citizens at risk in China should expect to see from the new Biden administration.
Experts testifying before the House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations on Monday said it remains crucial for Western democracies to support democratic activists both within China and in Hong Kong and Taiwan from the threat of violent crackdowns.
One added that while details won’t be certain until Biden takes office, the bipartisan nature of support for pushing back at Chinese aggression in the U.S. Congress is likely an indication that that will continue.
“I wish I had more of an answer on that,” said Adam Nelson, senior advisor for Asia-Pacific at the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, which promotes democracy around the world.
“The focus of democracy and human rights in China in the U.S. has been bipartisan,” he continued, adding that he has “very little doubt” but can’t say for certain until the administration is in place that continued support for democracy in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan will be a strong focus.
Members of the Canada-China relations special committee heard testimony from several civil rights and democracy advocates in the latest hearing into their ongoing study on relations with Beijing.
Canada has been snared in the ongoing fight between Trump and the Chinese regime, the most notable example being the arbitrary detentions of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor just days after Canadian authorities arrested Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at the behest of American law enforcement.
Meng and her company face dozens of criminal charges related to skirting U.S. sanctions on Iran and stealing corporate secrets, but there has been little public indication of pressure being applied by the Trump administration to try to secure the freedom of the Canadians caught in the crosshairs.
Nelson said the recent imposition by China of a draconian national security law over Hong Kong means foreign citizens and businesses operating in the former British colony could face the same fate.
“I do not feel safe going back to the city,” he told the committee.
“If I were a Canadian company or citizen sitting in Hong Kong, I would be nervous.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday that he expects Biden will be a “good partner” for Canada in pushing to secure the release of Kovrig and Spavor, who have now been detained in harsh conditions with only sporadic, limited access to legal and consular services for 700 days.
Meng, meanwhile, is free on bail and living in her Vancouver mansion.
Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said Canada and other Western democracies with citizens in Hong Kong must make it clear they have a plan in place to protect those individuals should the Chinese regime act out against them.
“The Chinese government under Xi Jinping does behave like a schoolyard bully … if they don’t do so, they will push,” he said.
“Make it very clear that you will and have a plan to protect your nationals in Hong Kong.”
So far, Trudeau has refused to impose Magnitsky sanctions on any Chinese officials despite the continued detention of Kovrig and Spavor, even as the Chinese ambassador to Canada levied a threat against the safety of Canadians living in Hong Kong last month.
Nelson said some of the steps the Canadian government should consider include what’s sometimes referred to as a lifeboat plan to get citizens and refugees out of Hong Kong as quickly as possible.
There are 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong but while they would qualify for consular assistance and emergency evacuation plans through the Canadian embassy, what would happen to Hong Kongers who don’t have the means or passports to leave remains a big concern for activists.
“A lifeboat scheme that particularly looks after them would be well worth it,” said Nelson.
Mabel Tung, chair of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, also urged the government to expedite asylum claims from Hong Kongers trying to flee the Chinese crackdown.
She said she expects to see those numbers spike once the prohibitions on non-essential foreign nationals entering Canada due to the coronavirus pandemic are relaxed.
“They look to Western democracies for protection and safe harbouring,” she said.