Gloria Fung is president of Canada-Hong Kong Link.
For half a year, Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig have languished in a Chinese prison. In April, according to The Globe and Mail, they were being detained in isolation with lights turned on for 24 hours a day, barred from going outside or even seeing the sun. They had endured interrogations of up to eight hours daily, and had not seen a lawyer. Detained after Canada’s exercise of its legal obligation to fulfill an extradition request from the United States, they are essentially hostages, and China has rebuffed all Canadian efforts to discuss this impasse.
The appalling treatment of these imprisoned Canadians should help us understand why millions of Hong Kong residents have taken to the streets to protest the extradition bill that the city’s Beijing-appointed Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, tried to ram through its legislature last month. Under this legislation, anyone in Hong Kong, including the 300,000 Canadian citizens living and working there, could be extradited to a prison in China to join the two detained Canadians, essentially at the whim of the Chinese Communist Party. There, they would join the legions of the wrongly incarcerated: human-rights lawyers, Tibetan monks and up to a million Uyghurs in a vast network of internment camps.
Hong Kong’s peaceful demonstrators have been beaten, pepper-sprayed and shot by rubber bullets. According to local media, three supporters have fallen to their deaths, leaving behind notes decrying the bill. And despite a brutal police crackdown, the march’s numbers swelled to more than two million last month. Ms. Lam finally suspended the bill in mid-June, but she has refused to withdraw it or talk to opposition parties about their concerns.
Frustration is at a boiling point, especially among young people who fear a long, dismal future under the thumb of China. Joshua Wong, the youth leader who was just released from prison, issued a statement that revealed the depths of the desperation: “This is about the future of Hong Kong … we tried everything else.“ Protesters have since forced their way into the legislature, with police dispersing the occupation with tear gas. Canadian media have reported that glass doors were broken and portraits of pro-Beijing legislators were smashed, but few mention that they have not hurt anyone, and that they sealed the library to protect valuable documents. And centuries of history show that such disorder is often inevitable when a regime ignores peaceful expressions of the popular will.
But this is not just about Hong Kong. Under China’s President Xi Jinping, there has been a global expansion of its sharp power. According to Amnesty International Canada and the Coalition on Human Rights in Canada, individuals and organizations on our soil have been targeted by China’s online surveillance and threats.
Because of its special status within China, Hong Kong has become ground zero in the new Cold War, as China faces off against the world’s democracies. And it requires countries such as Canada to act.
In the treaty signed with Britain prior to the handover in 1997, China pledged that it would protect basic freedoms and uphold the autonomy of Hong Kong and its judiciary for 50 years. In fact, Hong Kong is the only place in China where the rule of law and these freedoms still exist. Now, Mr. Xi seems to want those eliminated well in advance of the 50-year timeline; Beijing has explicitly stated that it will no longer honour its treaty obligations in Hong Kong. An undemocratic regime that does not respect international law is a danger to democracy everywhere.
Recognizing the threat, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has issued a statement of concern, specifically referring to these Canadians in Hong Kong and the importance of preserving freedom of expression, rule of law and an independent judiciary. There were rallies of support for Hong Kong in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, Ottawa and 26 other cities around the world.
But this summer, Canadians across the country must urge members of Parliament and federal election candidates to express their support for the rule of law and basic freedoms in Hong Kong, reflecting the values Canada stands for in our globalized world. We must join the Canadians living in Hong Kong in holding politicians accountable on election day and throughout their terms in office. The extradition bill – the sword hanging over the heads of anyone who ever sets foot in Hong Kong – must be withdrawn. The people of Hong Kong are struggling to preserve rights guaranteed by international treaty, rights we take for granted. We must support them – if not to protect their freedoms, then to protect our own.
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