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Occupy Central With Love and Peace rallied to support democracy in Hong Kong, on Sunday. The pro-democracy group has threatened civil disobedience in an effort to secure universal suffrage for the city. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)
Occupy Central With Love and Peace rallied to support democracy in Hong Kong, on Sunday. The pro-democracy group has threatened civil disobedience in an effort to secure universal suffrage for the city. (Brent Lewin/Bloomberg)

Hong Kong looks to Ottawa for support against China's controversial election reform Add to ...

In the days since China proposed a form of Hong Kong democracy that critics deride as a sham, the United States, United Kingdom and even Taiwan have raised alarm. Chris Patten, the last British governor of the city, likened the election Beijing wants to “more or less what happens in Iran.”

But Ottawa has maintained a studious silence, a stance that is now drawing condemnation from Hong Kong democracy leaders and a former Canadian diplomat, who say this country has a moral obligation to stand up for a place that possesses unique ties to Canada.

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“This is a government that says it’s run by values and principle. So it’s a little surprising that they have not been more outspoken in following the Hong Kong issue,” said John Higginbotham, who served as Canadian commissioner to Hong Kong from 1989 to 1995.

“Because it’s a test case of issues of democracy, freedom of speech and preservation of the one-country two-systems that was promised to the people of Hong Kong.”

Canada also has arguably closer ties to Hong Kong than any other nation, he said.

Some 300,000 people in Hong Kong hold Canadian passports. Canada’s diplomatic mission there is among its largest worldwide, more populous than most embassies. Before Hong Kong became part of China, the highest levels of the Canadian government sought to shape the Sino-British declaration, which would pledge to preserve a high degree of autonomy for the city.

In 1991, then-prime minister Brian Mulroney travelled to Hong Kong for five days on a trip he described in his memoir as a “crucial” chance for a G7 leader to send Beijing “a signal” of Western concern over China’s treatment of the city. Two years earlier, following the Tiananmen Square massacre, Mr. Mulroney had said: “The problem of Hong Kong is not only a problem for the United Kingdom. The problem is a problem for the world.”

But that sense of Canadian solidarity with Hong Kong has not been evident in the past week, after Beijing said it would only allow the city vote on China-approved candidates for the powerful chief executive’s office.

Neither the consulate in Hong Kong nor foreign affairs would comment. A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird directed a reporter to a July tweet where Mr. Baird said: “Canada strongly supports democratic development in #HongKong, including its commitment to adopt universal suffrage.”

While China has called its proposal that offers Hong Kong civilians the ability to vote “universal suffrage,” critics have argued that, in keeping candidate selection control for itself, Beijing is offering a version of democracy out of step with international standards.

Hong Kong’s democracy leaders are now begging other nations to come to their aid, as China has made clear it has no interest in revising its proposal.

“We need international support,” said Martin Lee Chu Ming, founding chairman of the city’s Democratic Party. Canada has a “moral obligation to Hong Kong people” to stand behind the one-country two-systems approach it helped to establish, he said.

Anson Chan Fang On-sang, the former Hong Kong Chief Secretary, said international silence risks “emboldening China into believing yes, money talks, they can get away with it” — that trade concerns increasingly trump other worries.

“Canada and other countries have core values that are shared by Hong Kong,” Ms. Chan said. “So are the free societies in Canada and in the international community going to stand up for their principles? Or are they going to cave in?”

Other nations have been less circumspect than Canada.

China’s moves have worried Taiwan, where even pro-Beijing President Ma Ying-jeou has expressed “our support for the pursuit of democracy and rule of law by the people in Hong Kong.”

In Britain, a parliamentary committee is probing whether China has stepped outside the commitments it made before the 1997 British handover of Hong Kong.

But calls for Ottawa to stand alongside Hong Kong are not uniform. In June, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong joined several other business groups in publicly criticizing the Occupy Central movement that has threatened civil disobedience in a push for democracy. This week, Gordon Houlden, a former diplomat who now directs the China Institute at the University of Alberta, questioned the value of Canada muddying the waters on an issue where Beijing is very unlikely to back down, and at a time when transpacific relations are already strained.

“Just being on the side of the angels is not always enough,” he said. The calculation for Canada, he added, should look like this: “If you’re going to take a strong stand, what is it going to accomplish?”

And the Chinese proposal is “not necessarily inconsistent” with the rules it falls under, Mr. Houlden said. In its original text, Hong Kong’s Constitution-like Basic Law does not mention universal suffrage. Such promises were only made later, and with little specificity as to what it should look like.

Yuen Pau Woo, who until this week led the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, also cautioned that “the Canadian government and other governments have to tread very carefully. China obviously feels that they are meeting their obligations for universal suffrage.”

China itself has lashed out at its detractors, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying this week that “constitutional reform of Hong Kong is China’s domestic affair which brooks no interference from the outside.” When Mr. Lee and Ms. Chan travelled to Canada and the U.S. this summer to plead their case, they were accused in Chinese state media of “inviting foreign intervention” and acting like “foreign slaves and traitors.”

Still, it’s “disappointing” that Ottawa has said nothing, even if doing so might provoke some Chinese wrath, said Mr. Higginbotham.

“It’s perfectly possible to have very good relations on many levels and have disagreements on others. That has to be done publicly as well as privately.”

Why publicly?

“Because then they pay attention.”

Follow on Twitter: @nvanderklippe

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