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People holding hands and using their phone torches as they form a human chain in Hong Kong on Aug. 23, 2019.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Canada’s two major party leaders have little to offer in the way of help for Hong Kong residents who fear for their safety even as Commonwealth countries face calls to open their doors to people from this former British colony.

Hong Kong, which was handed over to China in 1997, has been roiled by nearly four months of sometimes violent protests this year. Protesters are furious over what they see as creeping interference by Beijing in Hong Kong’s affairs despite promises by Beijing to grant the city wide-ranging autonomy and freedoms denied in mainland China.

Speaking to reporters in St. John’s on Tuesday morning, Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau said that, if re-elected, his government would focus on the 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong, and he underlined Canada’s repeated calls for peace.

“We’re going to focus on the 300,000 Canadians, which is more than citizens of any other country in Hong Kong, and we will always look, as we do, at ways we can help people around the world who are fleeing violence and persecution,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer similarly declined to say whether a Conservative government might extend a lifeline to Hong Kongers.

“I think that it’s important to monitor the situation and see how it develops,” Mr. Scheer said. "Of course, we will always stand up for human rights and the right for people to express themselves and to protest peacefully and as the situation unfolds, we will have more to say on that.”

A motion with cross-party support tabled in the British Parliament this month urges the United Kingdom and all Commonwealth countries – a list that includes Canada – to offer Hong Kong people residency. The motion, proposed by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, calls on Commonwealth countries to "offer Hong Kong people the insurance policy of second citizenship and a second right of abode.”

This comes just months after news broke that Germany granted refugee status to two activists facing rioting charges at home in what appeared to be the first time the European country acknowledged such status for democracy campaigners from the Chinese-ruled city. Ray Wong, 25, and Alan Li, 27, revealed to the media this year that they were granted refugee asylum status in Germany in May, 2018.

Canada has stronger ties to Hong Kong then most Canadians might realize. In addition to the more than 300,000 Canadian citizens estimated to be living in Hong Kong, many Canadians gave their lives for Hong Kong. Almost 2,000 Canadian soldiers were sent to the region when it was a British colony to defend it against the Imperial Japanese forces. More than 550 died in the fighting or in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps.

The trigger for the Hong Kong unrest was an extradition bill, now withdrawn, that would have allowed people to be sent from Hong Kong to mainland China for trial.

But the demonstrators’ demands have broadened to include universal suffrage and an independent inquiry into their complaints of excessive force by the police.

Mr. Trudeau declined to say Tuesday when asked whether Canada would offer asylum or permanent residence to Hong Kong protesters.

Aileen Calverley, a Canadian who is a trustee of the watchdog group Hong Kong Watch, called on Canada to help.

“In the Second World War Canadians gave their lives to defend Hong Kong,” Ms. Calverly said. "In a new time of crisis in Hong Kong, as young people demonstrate for freedom and democracy, we appeal to Canada to grant asylum to protesters if needed, and to guarantee that protesters will not be denied from entering, studying or working in Canada because of criminal records arising from these protests."

Ms. Calverley also appealed to Canada to grant citizenship to Hong Kongers who already hold a British Nationals (Overseas) passports because under Commonwealth rules they are already Commonwealth citizens. Before Britain relinquished Hong Kong in 1997 to China it offered BNO cards to the city’s residents. This class confers nationality, but not citizenship or automatic right of abode in Britain.

Johnny Patterson, director of Hong Kong Watch, added: “At this critical and sensitive point in the protests, it is vital that the Canadian government use every available means to stand with Hong Kong’s people in the face of Chinese encroachment. Obvious ways that the Canadian government can do this is by granting asylum to protesters, or by considering extending right of abode to Hong Kongers.”

With a report from Reuters