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Opinion As Hong Kong’s protesters fight for Western ideals, the West shows how disconnected it has become

Eric Miller is a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Earlier this year, Frances Hui, a student at Boston’s Emerson College, penned an essay in her university paper titled “I am from Hong Kong, not China.” Amid intense backlash from Chinese-born students, she captured Hong Kong’s zeitgeist: “I am from a city owned by a country I don’t belong to.”

That spirit – illustrating an identity crisis in action – helps to explain how weeks of protests in Hong Kong, which started in opposition to an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to China for trial, have broadened into a quest to protect the fundamental rights of Hong Kong from Chinese encroachment.

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After an estimated 1.7 million people defied a protest ban on Aug. 18, the Hong Kong government appeared determined to respond forcefully this past weekend. On Sunday, police drew arms for the first time and deployed water cannons and tear gas after 10,000 people peacefully marched.

Beijing, which controls most levers of power in Hong Kong, has grown increasingly worried about the protests. It has indicated its willingness to directly respond, in both its rhetoric and in its actions, such as massing troops near the territory.

Such an intervention would constitute a profound violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, a cornerstone of the Sino-British Handover Agreement. It guarantees the territory a high degree of autonomy, an array of fundamental rights and judicial independence under a “one country, two systems” model.

A protester holds a sign at a #MeToo rally in Hong Kong on Aug. 28, 2019, to protest alleged sexual assaults by police against anti-government female protesters.

LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

Many foreign commentators have argued that the Hong Kong protests are futile; the territory, they say, will inevitably be brought to heel by an assertive China. But for the people on the ground, knowing that this is likely correct, it is also a meaningless argument. For the protesters, this is not about the overwhelming statistical odds against success – it’s about the survival of what makes their city distinct.

After the end of the Cold War, Francis Fukuyama declared “the end of history,” prompted by the pending universalization of democracy. Seemingly forgotten, however, were the years-long campaigns that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall, combining what Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz would call “physical forces” (i.e. tangible assets) and “moral forces” (including ideals of freedom, basic rights and democracy). These ideals were, of course, imperfectly applied in the West, and the realities of international politics necessitated alliances with those who were imperfect democrats.

Yet, in a long-term struggle over international leadership, including the unfolding tussle over the place of China in the 21st-century world order, defensible ideals are just as important as hard assets. And Hong Kong is a key place to begin reasserting the ideals of freedom in contrast to China’s repression.

Canada, for instance, has fundamental interests at stake in Hong Kong. Some 300,000 Canadian citizens live in Hong Kong, and more than 200,000 Hong Kongers live in Canada. Hong Kong is also an important export market for Canada. Any Chinese military intervention in Hong Kong is certain to injure both Canadian citizens and Canadian commercial interests.

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So, how should Canada respond?

First, Ottawa should raise the costs that China would face if it undermines the autonomy and freedoms guaranteed in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. This includes voicing support for these principles by extending the Aug. 17 Canada-Europe Joint Statement and the Biarritz G7 Statement to other international partners.

Second, the government should actively support Canadian firms wishing to shift production and exports out of China. For those sectors where good opportunities remain in China, assess the appropriateness of Export Development Canada offering enhanced political-risk insurance.

Third, Ottawa should embrace a deeper relationship with Taiwan, which shares the values of freedom and democracy that Canada is seeking to defend in Hong Kong; a good first step would be to advocate for its inclusion in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Finally, a China strategy for Canada developed by a panel of experts would follow a long tradition of Ottawa’s use of knowledgeable Canadians to study complex policy questions. Over the past few years, Canada has been hurt by a lack of a comprehensive and coherent plan, and we are in urgent need of an approach that welds economic and security interests to the effective promotion of Canadian values.

It took a long time to build the Western ideals we cherish. We cannot lose sight of that when other countries seek to find safety in the same.

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