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A group of Canadian lawyers is offering a free service for Hong Kong lawyers worried they and their families may one day have to flee China’s unprecedented crackdown on the former British territory.

Operation Document Park will allow Hong Kong lawyers to quietly store their “life documents,” such as birth or marriage certificates or proof of education, in Canada in case they have to leave Hong Kong in a hurry. These are the types of documents required by Canada’s department of Immigration and Citizenship if people wish to immigrate or seek asylum here.

Vancouver immigration lawyer Richard Kurland is spearheading this effort. He said the national security law China imposed on Hong Kong last summer is evidence the Chinese Communist Party plans to convert the former British colony’s legal system to something that better suits its purposes. This law was ostensibly to target secession, subversion and terrorism, but it contains vaguely defined offences that critics say effectively criminalize dissent and opposition.

Mr. Kurland said he plans to expand the document service to cover all Hong Kongers, and not just lawyers, after this smaller-scale initiative gets up and running.

He said not all Hong Kong lawyers, trained and familiar with a British-style common law system with an independent and impartial judiciary, will be tolerated by Chinese authorities. That will include those who have defended dissidents and protesters in recent years. “The old Hong Kong is dead,” Mr. Kurland said.

“Either Hong Kong lawyers are going to have to swallow the conversion to the mainland judicial system or they are going to be targets.”

He said eight Canadian lawyers have so far signed up to help Operation Document Park. He has created a website where Hong Kongers and their lawyers can begin the process of creating a cache of necessary documents in Canada at no cost. The site is designed to connect Hong Kong lawyers with Canadian legal assistance.

“Noah built the ark before the flood and that is what Hong Kong lawyers need to do,” Mr. Kurland said.

Beijing-backed authorities in Hong Kong have already targeted one lawyer who had offered legal assistance to dissidents trying to leave for Taiwan. Daniel Wong was among those arrested earlier this month. A Hong Kong-based rights lawyer, Mr. Wong had led an initiative to set up at least 10 companies, ranging from a laundry service to a restaurant in Taiwan, to give protesters much-needed residency on the self-ruled island via work visas.

One of the leading experts on the politics of Hong Kong said parking documents required for immigration in another country “would be wise.”

Steve Tsang, a Hong Kong-born political scientist at the University of London’s SOAS China Institute, said he does not consider it likely that events will impel Hong Kongers to make a quick escape, but “it is not a scenario I can dismiss or say forget about it.”

Last summer, the Chinese government imposed a sweeping new national security law on Hong Kong. Western countries including Canada have accused China’s one-party state of breaking a 1984 treaty in which Beijing pledged to maintain Hong Kong’s local autonomy, civil rights and rule of law for 50 years after the handover. Since June, 2020, authorities in Hong Kong, backed by Beijing, have barred pro-democracy legislators from running for office, and this month police conducted sweeping arrests of most of the remaining opposition figures and activists.

Hong Kong human rights lawyers have publicly expressed their fear they could be targeted for defending those arrested under the new security law. Mainland Chinese lawyers who defend activists have seen their careers ended. A Chinese lawyer, Lu Siwei, who stepped in to defend Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters who were seized trying to escape to Taiwan by boat, was stripped of his law licence this month.

John Clancey, an American lawyer in Hong Kong and a member of a group linked to pro-democracy protesters in the city, was arrested under the national security law earlier this month. He is also chair of the Asian Human Rights Commission.

About two-thirds of Hong Kong’s population are eligible for U.K. citizenship by virtue of being born in the Asian city when it was still a British colony. But that doesn’t cover all Hong Kongers.

Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, an umbrella group of Canadians supporting democracy protesters in Hong Kong, said she would be concerned that Chinese authorities will attempt to track or surveil Operation Document Park.

Mr. Kurland said however that any e-mails between him and Hong Kong lawyers to connect them with Canadian assistance will be destroyed afterwards.

Canada-Hong Kong ties run deep. There are several hundred thousand Canadians of Hong Kong origin living in Canada and 300,000 Canadian citizens living there now. More than 1,970 Canadians were deployed to Hong Kong to defend it from the Japanese in the Second World War and 554 lost their lives as a result, either in battle, from wounds or while in Japanese captivity.

With reports from Reuters and Associated Press

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