Canada has raised “serious questions” with the Hong Kong government over the territory’s plan to enter an extradition agreement with Beijing, opening the door for the first time for residents to be sent to China for trial.
The plan has caused alarm among Canadians with ties to Hong Kong, and among other countries, that it would give the Chinese government easier access to people it may wish to imprison, despite assurances it would not apply to political crimes.
In December, two Canadians were detained in China, apparently in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of senior Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the United States. Some Canadians who visit or live in Hong Kong say they fear the agreement would mean they also could face arbitrary arrest.
“Canada has raised serious questions with the Hong Kong government about the proposed amendments to their extradition laws,” Guillaume Bérubé, a spokesperson for Global Affairs Canada, said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail. He said the security of Canadians is a top priority, but did not elaborate on Canada’s concerns.
The proposed changes, announced in February and expected to be enacted later this year, would grant the city’s chief executive the right to order suspects extradited to jurisdictions not covered by existing arrangements, including mainland China, on a case-by-case basis. The agreement would cover charges such as murder, sex crimes, kidnapping and drug offences.
The Chinese embassy in Ottawa didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story. However, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said at a news conference earlier this month that the matter is between Hong Kong and China, and other countries “have no right to interfere.”
The changes would not apply to those accused of political crimes and some economic crimes, but that is little comfort to Canadians who live in Hong Kong or go there frequently.
Earlier this month, five groups in Canada, including Toronto’s Canada-Hong Kong Link and Vancouver’s Hong Kong Forum, and a few groups in the United States, issued a joint statement voicing worries about the safety of citizens living in Hong Kong, but also about the erosion of the city’s judicial independence and democracy.
Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997 under an agreement in which China promised it could retain its own laws, economic system and civil rights for 50 years.
Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link, calls for the Canadian government to oppose the bill.
“We strongly feel that our Canadian government needs to speak up,” she said. "They need to reflect our strong opposition to this proposed amendment to the extradition laws. It has a very wide and long-term impact. Not only on the impact of civil society of Hong Kong, but also on citizens of all countries.
“It’s highly up to the Chinese authorities to interpret what is criminal, because they can always use non-political excuses to request for extradition."
The arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor heightened worries about the increasing ties between Hong Kong and Beijing. China has accused Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor of espionage-related offences, although neither has been formally charged.
“Look at the two Michaels," said Vancouver-based activist Mabel Tung, who has been advocating for human rights and democracy in mainland China and Hong Kong for years. "They are not even Chinese, [and China] can give you any kind of criminal reason [for arrest] that may not be criminal in other, peaceful countries,” Ms. Tung said. “... I am originally from Hong Kong and even though I have never been to mainland China, still fear I might be in trouble.”
An estimated 300,000 Canadians live in Hong Kong. According to the 2016 census, Canada had 208,940 immigrants who were born in Hong Kong.
Karry Chow moved to Canada after the 1989 Tiananmen protests and lived in Toronto for almost a decade. He is a Canadian citizen, but returned to Hong Kong for business.
Soon after Hong Kong proposed the extradition change, Mr. Chow said, he began selling his assets in the city to move back to Canada.
The amendments “affect every Hong Kong person. Not only the Hong Kong Canadians, but everyone who did business with China could be taken advantage of and lose freedom and assets,” he said.
“I don’t dare to risk, I have made the decision.”
Edward Chin, a Canadian hedge fund manager living in Hong Kong, called the proposed rules “shocking” and said they signal that Hong Kong will eventually lose its autonomy.
Mr. Chin, 50, said he anticipates returning to Canada with his family within three years.
“I have one young boy who is eight years old now. I want him to grow in a safe environment. Hong Kong might not be it."
Mr. Chin participated in 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.
He said, back then, he still held hope for the city, but once the bill is enacted, he believes its “one country, two systems” status will end.
Ms. Tung said she won’t visit the city again if change is put into effect because her activism probably means she is considered a threat to Beijing. “So in that case, when I pass through Hong Kong or go back to visit some friends, I might be in danger.”
Philip Dykes, chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association, said officials may arrest visitors to the city with a view to surrendering them to mainland China, but Hong Kong would not extradite for political reasons.
“A Hong Kong court will not surrender if a person is wanted for a politically motivated offence (e.g. robbing a bank to fund an underground political movement). This exception is common in most extradition agreements," Mr. Dykes wrote in an email to The Globe.
"Nor will a surrender be allowed for extraneous reasons such [as] a membership of a political party or belonging to a religious group, e.g. selected for prosecution for theft because you are a Catholic or Trotskyist.”
But Mr. Chow said he is pessimistic about those assurances.
“'One country, two systems’ is used to deceive Hong Kong people,” he said. “I want to go back to a free country.”