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opinion

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responds to a question during a news conference on Oct. 9, 2020 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

Another day, another cheap threat from a Chinese diplomat. The Trudeau government sharply rebuked the official, but went no further, which was the right thing to do.

“Wolf warrior” diplomacy, as it’s called, was on full display Thursday when China’s ambassador to Canada warned Ottawa against accepting pro-democracy dissidents fleeing Hong Kong in the wake of Beijing’s draconian new security law.

Calling the dissidents “violent criminals,” Ambassador Cong Peiwu warned at a news conference that, if the Canadian government “really cares about the good health and safety of those 300,000 Canadian passport holders in Hong Kong … you should support those efforts to fight violent crimes.”

When asked whether he was making a threat, Mr. Cong replied, “That is your interpretation.”

Is it time for Canadians in Hong Kong to start booking flights to Canada – to the extent any can be found?

After all, the regime in Beijing appears not to be above taking hostages as a negotiating tactic. The 10th of December will mark the second anniversary of the imprisonment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig by the Chinese government. They were arrested in apparent retaliation for Canada’s detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, at the request of the United States government, for possible extradition.

As The Globe and Mail’s Nathan Vanderklippe reports, some Canadians in Hong Kong are worried about possible harassment or abductions by the Chinese government.

But others are more sanguine, and Lynette Ong, a political scientist at the University of Toronto who is a specialist on China, believes most are probably safe.

“Hong Kong is a metropolitan city. It is one of the world’s biggest financial capitals,” she said in an interview. "If one abides by the national-security law, one should be fine.”

Alejandro Reyes, associate professor at the Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong, concurs. While periods of instability always prompt questions about the long-term future of the city, he said in an e-mail exchange, “for most people, I would think that their situation has not changed much and they are going on with their daily lives."

However, those who have resisted the efforts of the Chinese government to strip Hong Kong of its autonomy and democratic freedoms are at risk, including those who are Canadian citizens.

“They are very vulnerable,” said Diana Lary, professor emerita at the University of British Columbia, who is a specialist in Chinese history.

For much of the past two years, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his government have tried to avoid confrontation, as Ottawa attempted to secure the release of the two Michaels. But that strategy has failed, and as the Chinese have become more bellicose, the federal government has started to push back.

The government would not hesitate “calling out China for its coercive diplomacy,” Mr. Trudeau said Friday afternoon at a press conference.

Global Affairs called in the ambassador to reprimand him for his comments.

Just as with the extradition process playing out with Ms. Meng, Canada’s refugee and immigration rules apply to people in Hong Kong no more and no less than they apply to people anywhere else. The Chinese government knows this.

If someone seeks asylum in Canada based on well-founded fears of persecution should they be forced to return to where they lived, then they are entitled to apply for permanent-resident status as a refugee.

Similarly, if someone living in Hong Kong wishes to immigrate to Canada in either the economic or family reunification streams, they have every right to do so. Given that many Hong Kongers have an excellent education, hold down well-paid and valuable jobs, and speak English, they could soon be in Canada as permanent residents.

Frankly, it would be in Canada’s interest to expedite applications from Hong Kong. But that would be playing favourites, and the whole purpose of the points-based immigration system is to welcome qualified applicants regardless of who they are or where they come from.

Whether or not we like it, China is there: more than a billion people, a GDP of US$14-trillion. It is in Canada’s interest to trade with the world’s second-largest economy. But not at the cost of abandoning the country’s commitment to defending democratic values and human rights.

And that includes calling out Chinese diplomats whenever they start to sound like cheap gangsters or bullies in a schoolyard.