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Pro-democracy supporters hold banners and shout slogans outside of the Western District police station in Hong Kong after at least 14 pro-democracy veterans and supporters being arrested in a sweeping operation on April 18, 2020, in Hong Kong.Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

Beijing is lashing out at Canada for expressing concern over the arrest of key leaders in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, saying what Ottawa did “constitutes gross interference in China’s internal affairs.”

The Chinese embassy in Ottawa in a statement this week accused Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne of making what it called “irresponsible remarks” over the arrests.

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“We urge the Canadian side to abide by the basic norms governing international relations, support the Hong Kong police in enforcing the law, and immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs in any form,” the embassy said.

Last Saturday, Hong Kong police arrested 15 activists on charges of illegal assembly, including veteran politicians, a newspaper publisher and senior barristers. The raids marked the biggest crackdown on the pro-democracy movement since the beginning of the anti-government protests across the former British colony in June of last year.

Canada’s Mr. Champagne subsequently urged all sides in the matter to exercise restraint, and said the protests that began in 2019 were in response to “legitimate concerns” raised by Hongkongers.

Today, as many as 500,000 individuals of Hong Kong descent live in Canada, according to Hong Kong Watch, a U.K.-based watchdog group. Close to 300,000 Canadian citizens currently reside in Hong Kong, making it one of the biggest expatriate cities in the world.

“Canada is concerned by the arrests of political figures in Hong Kong on April 18 in relation to popular demonstrations that took place last year and believes that this extraordinary measure calls for close scrutiny,” Mr. Champagne said in a statement first released April 19.

“With hundreds of thousands of Canadians living in Hong Kong, we have a vested interest in Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity – the foundation of which is its relative autonomy and basic freedoms."

Under the terms of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997, Beijing committed to a “one country, two systems” approach to the former British colony where it could maintain its capitalist way of life as well as the same political and social freedoms for 50 years.

But civil-rights advocates and foreign countries have increasingly criticized China for the erosion of basic rights in Hong Kong including Beijing’s encroachment on its autonomy despite previous guarantees.

“Canada supports the right of peaceful protest and Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and freedoms under the Basic Law and the One Country, Two Systems framework,” Mr. Champagne said.

“Canada will continue to closely monitor the situation in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong’s 2019 protests began in June over legislation, now withdrawn, that would have allowed suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial. Demands have since broadened into calls for universal suffrage.

Among those arrested April 18 were Democratic Party founder Martin Lee, 81, newspaper publisher Jimmy Lai, 71, and former lawmaker and barrister Margaret Ng, 72.

Mr. Lee is a veteran pro-democracy leader and Mr. Lai publishes the Apple Daily, a popular Hong Kong newspaper that often criticizes Hong Kong and Chinese leaders.

Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney said the federal government statement on the arrests was quite mild.

“What’s interesting is that although Canada’s tame and bizarrely even-handed statement doesn’t mention any of those arrested, the embassy’s statement aims its vitriol at Jimmy Lai and Martin Lee,” Mr. Mulroney said. “It’s an indication of how much such champions of free speech and human rights get under the skin of the Communist Party.”

In his opinion, the language the Chinese embassy is employing – “gross interference” – is quite exaggerated.

“This illustrates the extent to which such statements by China’s embassy are mainly delivered to be read by the powers that be in Beijing, and not by Canadians. Although China’s diplomats are remarkably tone-deaf, even they will understand how readily Canadians will reject such crazy rhetoric.”

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis said Canada should speak out more forcefully on the erosion of rights in Hong Kong. “We have seen how the Chinese government pushes back aggressively when they perceive weakness. The Canadian government’s statement in response to the arrest of peaceful pro-democracy civil society leaders in Hong Kong was a weak statement. It called for ‘close scrutiny’ and restraint on ‘all sides,’” Mr. Genuis said.

Dozens of Hong Kong activist groups around the world, including eight from Canada, issued a joint statement earlier this week condemning the arrests and their timing.

“Cynically, the [Hong Kong] administration has chosen to launch this attack on human rights while the rest of the world is preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic,” the statement reads.

Gloria Fung, president of Canada-Hong Kong Link and co-ordinator of the joint statement, said she was shocked by the “blatant action” of the Hong Kong government in arresting so many high-profile activists at one time, particularly Mr. Lee, who is often called the “Father of Democracy” in the Asian financial hub.

She said Canada’s response should have been tougher. "It is absurd for our foreign minister to call on both sides to exercise restraint.​ Why is Canada sitting on the fence when the U.K., the U.S. and Germany have spoken out [more] forcefully in support of freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong? Why is our government afraid to stand up to the bully that keeps kicking sand in our face?”​

With files from Reuters

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