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Opinion Hong Kong’s turmoil could be a Canadian crisis in the making

Kenny Zhang is president of A2Z Capital. Don J. DeVoretz is professor emeritus of Simon Fraser University. Both were major contributors to Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s “Canadians Abroad” research project, which was completed in 2011.

Hong Kong’s months-long pro-democracy protests are continuing to roil, thousands of kilometres away. But that turmoil, far away as it may seem, has direct implications for Canadians residing both here and in Hong Kong: After all, according to a 2011 report from the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, nearly 300,000 Canadian citizens reside in Hong Kong, making that city Canada’s largest overseas urban resident centre.

But that could change. Hong Kong’s leading role as an international financial centre has been undermined, as confirmed by the 10 per cent decline in the Hang Seng Index since the protests began in early June. The threat of potential further interruptions at one of the busiest airports in the world jeopardizes Hong Kong’s reputation as a global hub for international trade and business. And the city’s future economic prosperity is already in question, given that Beijing recently unveiled a plan to convert Shenzhen into a city modelled after Hong Kong, signalling that the Chinese government won’t make continued development a priority.

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In its report, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada found that nearly 80 per cent of Canadians in Hong Kong consider job opportunities their primary reason for living in Hong Kong. If these opportunities diminish – all while physical confrontations raise safety concerns for expatriates – it will invariably lead some of the thousands of Canadians who work and live in Hong Kong to consider returning to Canada.

How will Ottawa respond to this prospect? Increased Canadian consular assistance will be necessary, even though a mass evacuation from the city is unlikely to immediately occur.

Regardless of the size of the return migration to Canada, the potential effects on Canada’s housing market, health-care system, job market and overall social coherence represent a significant challenge. As well, regardless of where they live, Canadians living in Hong Kong – or anywhere overseas, for that matter – will have an impact in the coming federal election. Electoral outcomes in some key ridings will be affected this October not only by domestic Canadian voters, but potentially by all Canadian citizens living overseas, in the wake of 2018 government legislation and a January Supreme Court ruling that ex-pats can vote in elections no matter how long they’ve lived outside of Canada for the first time since 1993. Such overseas ballots will be counted in the electoral district where a foreign-residing Canadian voter last resided before leaving.

The provincial distribution of potential new voters could yield a decisive impact on a limited number of key ridings. The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s study indicated that, as of 2011, as many as 1.4 million eligible voters lived abroad, of whom 80 per cent claimed Ontario and British Columbia as their provinces of last residency.

Can any party afford to lose a significant portion of these potential votes in the next election? Certainly not, especially since many will be in crucial Vancouver and Toronto ridings.

So, one key political question remains: What set of policies would both entice overseas-Canadian voter turnout and garner support for a given party? One primary measure, for Hong Kong Canadians specifically, would be a party’s promises around a focused foreign policy to help stabilize the political storm in Hong Kong. Another will be the party that best showcases that, once in power, it would be ready and willing to receive Canadians from Hong Kong if the turmoil causes a return to Canada to become imperative. Will these émigrés be smoothly transitioned in Canada’s job market, education system and health-care facilities? Will there be full support for old-age pensioners who were previously Canadian citizens but were living in Hong Kong?

In sum, Canadian public and private initiatives should recognize our citizens living overseas as valuable global assets. And so three ideas might be wise for an enterprising party, if it wishes to woo the Canadians living in Hong Kong: Support and strengthen Canadians’ economic activities in a stable and prosperous Hong Kong; provide an unfettered pathway for Hong Kong-resident Canadian citizens to expeditiously return to Canada; and entertain the prospect of a Hong Kong-based refugee program to Canada. These unilaterally-based Canadian immigration initiatives would make a loud statement around the world: that Canadian citizens are Canadian citizens, no matter where they live.

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