Colin Robertson is a former Canadian diplomat and current vice-president and fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.
The Hong Kong demonstrations are a reminder that the desire for freedom is the elementary force driving all liberties. Those who should be liberty’s champions – the G7 democracies – are meeting next week in Biarritz. They need to speak out on Hong Kong and keep watch on what is happening.
The joint statement on Hong Kong by the Canadian and European Union foreign ministers calling for restraint, engagement and preservation of fundamental freedoms is a start. As a next step, why not create an eminent persons’ group to keep tabs on Hong Kong and make regular, public reports to G7 leaders?
Their terms of reference would be to monitor adherence to the two international covenants that transferred Hong Kong to China in 1997. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, agreed in 1984 by Deng Xiaoping guaranteed Hong Kong’s autonomy – “one country, two systems”– and basic liberties for 50 years. The Basic Law of 1990 defined the nuts and bolts of those liberties, including the rule of law, an independent judiciary and a free press.
Canada could appoint someone like Lloyd Axworthy, who has just done excellent service for Canada monitoring the Ukrainian elections, or former UN ambassador and justice minister Allan Rock, or former prime minister and foreign minister Joe Clark. Former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice would be excellent United States representatives.
As chair, why not the last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten? Mr. Patten worked strenuously to advance liberty in Hong Kong despite opposition from Beijing, business interests in Hong Kong and in London. For them, as with some in the British Foreign Office, the relationship with China eclipsed any obligation to Hong Kong. Lord Patten knows the lay of the land.
What happens to Hong Kong matters to Canada.
Canadian links to Hong Kong date back to the founding of the colony. Where once Canadian Pacific ships sailed into its harbour, there are now daily flights into its splendid island airport. Nearly 2000 Canadians fought in defence of Hong Kong in 1941, with the graves of 283 buried at Sai Wan Bay War Cemetery.
We probably have the largest Hong Kong Chinese diaspora, many of whom migrated to Canada after Tiananmen Square. They bring entrepreneurship and strengthen our trade and investment ties throughout Asia. With at least 300,000 Canadians living and working in Hong Kong, ours is likely the largest expatriate group. Many people from Hong Kong are alumni of Canadian schools and colleges. Hong Kong is still the easiest place for a Canadian to enter the Asian market and its Canadian Chamber of Commerce is one of the biggest outside of Canada.
Hong Kong is an international city and it draws its vitality from its internationalization. It is a member of the World Trade Organization and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation. In the next enlargement of the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership, Canada should encourage Hong Kong’s membership. Bringing Hong Kong (and Taiwan) into the World Health Organization would also make sense as it lies near the epicenter of flu-like pandemics emerging from China.
China opposes any outside efforts to support Hong Kong as foreign interference. They have already declared the Joint Declaration to be an “historical document” without practical significance. They claim that foreign agitation is behind the current demonstrations. But keeping the spotlight on what is happening is the best way to check rash Chinese intervention and to preserve liberty in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is the only example of a decolonization deliberately accompanied by less democracy and weaker protection of civil liberties. “This,” wrote Mr. Patten in his elegant memoir East and West, “was a cause for profound regret.”
What motivates the millions of Hong Kongers participating in the mostly peaceful demonstrations is their belief that they should be able to run their affairs, as they were promised. This includes choosing those who govern them in free and fair elections. It means not being extradited to China where the rule of law does not apply.
As the guardians of international covenants and the rules-based order, G7 leaders have a duty to Hong Kong. As the champions of democracy they have an obligation to tell Chinese leadership that we value not just economic liberties but political ones as well.
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