Chinese ambassador’s perceived threat raises concerns for Canadians in Hong Kong

Nathan Vanderklippe

16 October 2020

A perceived threat by China’s ambassador in Ottawa created new worry among Canadians in Hong Kong about their safety, although some dismissed the Chinese comments as inconsequential.

Canadians in the Asian financial centre have already felt Beijing’s tightening grip. Since 2017, two Canadian citizens with ties to the city have been imprisoned in mainland China — Michael Kovrig, the former diplomat whose home was in Hong Kong when he was seized by state security agents in Beijing, and Xiao Jianhua, a financier to Communist aristocracy who vanished from the Hong Kong Four Seasons and has not been seen since.

Now China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, has stirred new fear after saying Ottawa should stop accepting refugees from Hong Kong and instead support Chinese policies in the city if it “really cares about the good health and safety” of the estimated 300,000 people there who hold Canadian passports. Asked if that amounted to a threat, he replied: “That is your interpretation.”

But a threat is “undoubtedly” what Mr. Cong’s comments imply, said Alvin Y.H. Cheung, an affiliated scholar with US-Asia Law Institute at New York University.

History, he said, suggests that retaliatory consequences could include new administrative obstacles “that systematically disfavour Canadians and Canadian companies,” or surveillance and harassment — perhaps even temporary abduction — of junior staff at the Canadian consulate, similar to what happened to British employee Simon Cheng.

“In more extreme cases, attacks on prominent individuals by rent-a-thugs that the police seem to have no inclination to investigate,” said Mr. Cheung, who is Canadian.

The Globe and Mail spoke on Friday with Canadians working in Hong Kong as bankers, consultants, lawyers and entrepreneurs. Some expressed fear that Mr. Cong’s comments presaged the disappearance of Canadians, similar to the seizure of Mr. Kovrig and Michael Spavor, whose detention has been called “hostage diplomacy” by the Canadian government. Many refused to speak publicly out of fear that they risked personal or professional reprisal.

Others shrugged off the remarks.

“I do not think that this will bother any law abiding resident of Hong Kong,” said Jean-François Harvey, a Canadian lawyer who is worldwide managing partner for Harvey Law Group, which specializes in immigration and taxation. The city “is my home for the last 20 years and for the foreseeable future.”

“I don’t read his statement as a threat,” said Simon Young, a Canadian barrister who is associate dean of research with the faculty of law at The University of Hong Kong.

He understood Mr. Cong’s comments to mean that “if Canada cares for the wellbeing of those Canadians it should support the measures taken to promote social stability in Hong Kong,” rather than “grant asylum to Hong Kong permanent residents on the ground that they face threats in Hong Kong.”

For others in Hong Kong, however, the Chinese ambassador added to a rising sense of uncertainty of life in a city where Beijing has imposed a national security law that has been used to criminalize speech and arrest democracy advocates.

“For Canadians in Hong Kong, this changes the environment,” said Andrew Work, president of the Canadian Club of Hong Kong.

“Between the national security law and the Canadians being grabbed — and now we have this thinly-veiled threat to the health and safety of Canadians — the accumulation of risk factors starts to weigh on people,” he said.

“Everybody has their own threshold. But the more risk factors that pile on, the more people will be encouraged to leave.”

Some already have, including Davin Wong, a Canadian who was acting president of The Hong Kong University Students' Union before abandoning his studies there last year in the midst of lengthy protests. Unknown people had begun to follow him and people close to him, and he worried that he was placing other people at risk.

He’s now in Canada, studying law at the University of British Columbia. He is critical of the “coercive attitude” from Beijing.

Mr. Cong’s comments amount to “an attempt by China to see how much power they have over Canadian policy and decision making, and I think it is very important right now for Canada not to give in,” Mr. Wong said.

“It cannot be more apparent and clear to Canada that we have to review our approach toward our relationship with China.”

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