Skip to main content

Protesters gesture outside West Kowloon Magistrates' Courts where pro-democracy activists face charges related to national security, in Hong Kong, China March 1, 2021.LAM YIK/Reuters

A new program to help Hong Kongers study and work in Canada has attracted more than 500 applications in the first three weeks after it opened but one lawyer familiar with immigration levels from Asia says that’s not a remarkable number.

In November, the Canadian government, facing pressure to help Hong Kongers as China clamped down on civil rights, announced a new immigration arrangement aimed at attracting migrants from the former British territory. It included a three-year open work permit for recent Hong Kong graduates or those with a history of work experience in areas Canada might value, as well as a new pathway to permanent-resident status for those who end up coming here.

Immigration Department spokesman Rémi Larivière said 524 applications for work permits were received between Feb. 8 and 28. Also, he said, 15 applications for work permits were received.

Ousted Hong Kong prodemocracy lawmaker moves to Canada to start new life

Hong Kong media tycoon sentenced to 14 months in prison for 2019 pro-democracy activity

“With so many young Hong Kongers casting their eyes abroad, we want them to choose Canada,” Mr. Larivière said.

The government could only provide statistics for the first three weeks and could not immediately explain why it was not able to reveal numbers for the subsequent six weeks up to mid-April.

Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer said the early numbers do not appear to indicate an increase from the level of applications for such permits from Hong Kongers in the past.

He said that statistics for recent years – 2014 through 2017 – show 4,100 Hong Kongers applied annually for work permits or to extend work permits.

Mr. Kurland said the applications so far do not indicate a rise in interest among Hong Kongers to reside here. “There’s no real increase, or it’s a minimal increase.”

A crackdown on civil rights in Hong Kong that accelerated in 2020 amid the global pandemic has steadily eroded the territory’s political and social freedoms that were unique in China, a legacy of the territory’s years under British control. China had signed a treaty promising that Hong Kong could retain autonomy over its local affairs as well as civil rights for 50 years after the 1997 handover.

The measures, critics say, are remaking Hong Kong into something that is barely indistinguishable from other southern Chinese cities.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government was urged to create a dedicated asylum pathway for refugees from Hong Kong but did not do so. It has also faced criticism that its work permit program is only useful for upper-middle-class university graduates and fails to consider the realities of everyday people of Hong Kong.

The Chinese government imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last June, ostensibly to target secession, subversion and terrorism, but with vaguely defined offences that critics say effectively criminalize dissent and opposition to the Chinese Communist Party’s rule.

“Canada shares the grave concerns of the international community over China’s National Security Legislation and strongly supports the right to peaceful protest, freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. At this difficult moment, we stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Hong Kong,” Mr. Larivière said.

The Canadian government has said Ottawa will fast-track necessary documents and will not bar entry to Hong Kongers charged under China’s security law, which criminalizes protest and opposition. This law breaches commitments Beijing signed in a 1984 treaty with London to effect the 1997 handover. China had guaranteed local autonomy and civil rights would continue for 50 years.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.