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David Mulroney is president of the University of St. Michael's College and a former ambassador to China

These are not good days for democracy in Hong Kong, an unhappy fact that was recently reconfirmed by no less of an authority than Chris Patten, the city's last British governor. In a recent speech, Mr. Patten lamented the slow pace of democratic development since the city's 1997 handover to China. Back then, it was widely hoped that China's acceptance of the one country, two systems formula would allow for the steady evolution of democratic institutions in Hong Kong. The idea was that the city would continue to serve as a separate and self-contained test bed of reforms, some of which could be applied, carefully and selectively, by China itself.

But what happened instead was that ruling elites in Hong Kong began second-guessing their own authority, and routinely turned to Beijing for decisions that should have been trusted to Hong Kong institutions. An increasingly powerful China needed little encouragement. It systematically reduced Hong Kong's autonomy, without much comment from the city's supposed international friends such as Britain and Canada.

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Mr. Patten was particularly scathing in his commentary about independence advocates, whose campaign, he said, "dilutes support for democracy." This was interpreted as criticism of two lawmakers, supporters of independence, who have been forced to vacate their seats. The duo had refused to take the official oath of office, substituting wording that could be considered offensive to China. Their actions sparked legal intervention by China's government even before Hong Kong's own courts could consider the issue.

It's hard to argue with Mr. Patten's assessment. Pushing for Hong Kong's independence is wildly unrealistic and, given China's sensitivity and volatility, irresponsible. But it is also an understandable expression of local frustrations given how little effort has been devoted to exploring more moderate options for democratic governance. If Hong Kong's leaders, and friends such as Britain and Canada, had remained true to the vision of one country, two systems, the city's residents would today have at least some say in charting their future. Instead, they are condemned to a form of governance in which they are asked to take up the responsibilities of citizenship without the corresponding rights.

The reverse is true for that fortunate minority among Hong Kong's seven million residents who also happen to be Canadian citizens. The recently-introduced Bill C-33, which amends the Canada Elections Act, would offer the right to vote to all Canadians residing overseas, as long as they have lived in Canada at some point. It eliminates a previous provision that restricted voting rights to expatriates who had been absent for fewer than five years. The bill is big news in Hong Kong, where a Canadian community of roughly 300,000 includes emigrants to Canada who have since returned, and Canadian-born expats lured by Hong Kong's low-tax, business-friendly environment.

Passage of the bill will encourage much chest-thumping about Canada's support for democracy, but it is hard not to see in this something slightly different. Ottawa is offering up one of the most important rights of citizenship, the right to vote in elections back home, without reference to any corresponding responsibilities. This is politically astute, but not particularly courageous. Real support for democracy requires more ambition and more honesty.

Britain, Canada and other democracies have not lived up to their 1997 commitments, failing to follow up with the training programs, institutional exchanges and official encouragement that could have assisted the gradual emergence of healthy democratic institutions in Hong Kong. And they neglected to hold China accountable for its own commitments.

Our links to Hong Kong are real and enduring. In 1941, 290 Canadians gave their lives in defence of the city. Another 300 later died as prisoners of war. Since then, the steady influx of people and money from Hong Kong has enriched Canadian society. Shouldn't our support for democratic rights in Hong Kong extend beyond the privileged minority of its residents who happen to be Canadian citizens?

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