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Media mogul Jimmy Lai Chee-ying, founder of Apple Daily is detained by the national security unit in Hong Kong, China on Aug. 10, 2020.

TYRONE SIU/Reuters

If Canada keeps furrowing its brow at China, it’s going to get permanent wrinkles. Granted, that would at least be a tangible effect – which is more than Canada has accomplished so far by expressing its “grave,” “serious” and “deepest” concerns in response to various and escalating acts of belligerence from the Xi regime.

In just the past 18 months or so, Beijing has held Canadian citizens hostage, slapped us with economic penalties, lied about its outbreak of disease, perpetuated its Uyghur ethnic cleansing efforts, reneged on a 50-year pledge to respect the autonomy of Hong Kong, disqualified candidates and postponed Hong Kong’s election. In response to it all, Canada has grimaced and frowned.

On Monday, Hong Kong authorities arrested 10 people for various alleged offences committed under its new national security law. They raided the office of Apple Daily, an independent pro-democracy newspaper, and arrested its founder, 71-year-old activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai. Authorities also arrested two of Mr. Lai’s sons, executives within the paper’s publishing company, outspoken pro-democracy activist Agnes Chow and a handful of others.

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Before it was passed, Beijing and Hong Kong leaders tried to temper fears about the law by insisting that it would not be applied retroactively, and that it would only be used in cases of genuine national security threats. Yet in defending Monday’s arrests, a spokesperson for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office cited a history of supposed foreign collusion among those arrested, and referenced their past travel abroad. “Justice may be late, but it will never be absent,” the spokesman said. Mr. Lai was charged with fraud and colluding with foreign powers. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

The sweeping arrests signalled yet another turning point in the erasure of democracy in Hong Kong; they are a chilling warning about the survival of the free press in the territory. Canada has said it is “deeply concerned” by the arrests, much like it was “gravely concerned” about the postponement of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections, and “extremely concerned” about the formal charges laid against Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in June, after they had been detained for more than 500 days.

Just about the only action Canada has taken over the past several months was to suspend the Canada-Hong Kong extradition treaty after the passage of the national security law, and to stop exporting certain military items to Hong Kong. But in that case, Canada had no choice: To not take action would have been to compromise our own national security. Yet to Beijing’s other abuses, including those that directly affect Canadian citizens (hundreds of thousands of whom live in Hong Kong), Canada just sputters some words.

Other countries are taking tangible actions. In response to the security law, Britain opened its doors to nearly 3 million people from Hong Kong and created a new path to citizenship. Australia extended visas for 10,000 Hong Kong students and workers already in the country. The U.S. has slapped sanctions on 11 Chinese companies implicated in human-rights abuses in Xinjiang, as well as on top Chinese and Hong Kong officials, including Chief Executive Carrie Lam. It also tabled a bill in March to essentially cut supply chains with companies presumed to use forced Uyghur labour.

Ottawa’s reluctance to take action is surely out of concern for the welfare of the two Michaels, as well as fear of continuing and renewed economic penalties. But what Canada has been doing so far isn’t working and, arguably, our timid censure combines the worst of every result. We come off as morally vacuous for failing to do anything in response to Beijing’s belligerence, but we say just enough – meekly, with reservations – to stay on the wrong side of the Xi regime. In sum: We have failed to act on our principles and done little to aid persecuted populations or Hong Kongers resisting Beijing’s incursion, and yet are still subject to threats of retaliation and the Michaels remain in prison. It’s lose-lose-lose.

The arrest of Mr. Lai and the raid of Apple Daily were clear signals that Hong Kong authorities, backed by Beijing, are done with any pretenses about the goal of its national security law. And Canada, ever the bystander, remains ready to wag its finger as freedoms in Hong Kong are systematically disassembled. A nation that purports to stand up for the persecuted and oppressed would ostensibly do more than stand back and simply frown – apparently, we’re also poised and ready to furrow our brow, too.

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