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Protesters walk towards the Legislative Council during a rally in Hong Kong, on Aug. 23, 2019.

LILLIAN SUWANRUMPHA/AFP/Getty Images

Rising tensions between Ottawa and Beijing have spread fear in Hong Kong, with Canada’s consulate banning local staff from travel to China, and expatriate Canadians cancelling trips into the world’s second-largest economy.

Two weeks after Chinese authorities detained a Hong Kong employee of the British consulate, Canadian diplomats said Friday they have barred their own local staff from leaving the city for work.

“At present, locally engaged staff will not undertake official business travel outside of Hong Kong,” the consulate said in a statement. Hong Kong staff, it noted, “are not eligible for diplomatic passports,” which provide some protections.

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The Canadian government on Thursday also updated its advice to travellers to warn: “Increased screening of travellers’ digital devices has been reported at border crossings between mainland China and Hong Kong.”

But the travel restriction for local staff is an extraordinary step that reflects the severity of problems that have developed between China and Canada, following the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and the subsequent arrest in China of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

Tensions have only increased following expressions of concern about protests in Hong Kong by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland. Some 300,000 Canadian citizens live in Hong Kong, giving Ottawa an intimate connection to continuing protests in the city that have, over more than two months, brought millions to the streets seeking greater democratic freedoms.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang on Friday said China’s judicial system protects “the legal rights of Canadian citizens in accordance with the law.” Canada, he said, has “played a disgraceful role in the U.S. manipulation of the Meng Wanzhou case,” which he called a ”serious political matter.”

Ottawa pulled diplomats from Beijing following the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.

But John Higginbotham, formerly Canada’s top representative in Hong Kong, said he cannot recall another time in modern history when Canada banned travel to China by Hong Kong consulate staff.

“Even during the worst days of the Cultural Revolution and post-Tiananmen Hong Kong,” he said, ”‎I don’t recall a need for such measures. Now they seem only prudent.”

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“Canada and Canadians are indeed especially vulnerable” at the moment, he said.

In Hong Kong, the feeling is particularly acute.

”I’m cancelling travel to China indefinitely and would advise Canadians with any public profile or working in sensitive sectors to do the same,” said Andrew Work, president of the Canadian Club of Hong Kong.

“The rhetoric doesn’t bother me – arbitrary detention does,” Mr. Work said.

He pointed to the detention of Simon Cheng, the British consulate staffer, as well as pressure from Beijing that led Cathay Pacific to dismiss pilots and remove its chief executive, after some of the airline’s staff showed support for protests that Beijing has deemed separatist riots.

State media in China this week reported that Mr. Cheng was placed in 15 days of administrative detention for soliciting prostitutes, although Mr. Cheng’s family in Hong Kong have said they don’t believe that to be true.

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Though tensions between Canada and China have remained high since the arrest of Ms. Meng in December, there were signs of an improvement only recently in the relationship. Ms. Freeland and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Bangkok on Aug. 2 during a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers after months without high-level talks between the two countries.

Since then, however, both side have taken aim at each other in volleys of escalating rhetoric. Earlier this week, Mr. Trudeau called China “a growing power and increasingly assertive toward its place in the international order.” The Chinese government has criticized Canada for “grossly” interfering in its affairs, and told Canadian politicians they should “know their place.” The nightly newscast of China Central Television singled out Ms. Freeland by name this week, saying it “solemnly demands that the Canadian side be cautious in matters such as Hong Kong.”

Some Canadians in Hong Kong continue to travel to mainland China, although one businessman, who was granted anonymity by The Globe and Mail because he was concerned for his safety, said those who cross to nearby Shenzhen risk questioning and search by mainland Chinese officials.

Other Canadians, though, say it has become too risky.

Barrett Bingley, a director with a media and research company in Hong Kong, says his advice is: “Don’t even think about going to China at the moment.”

“Canada is in a geopolitical conflict with China, with two Canadians already detained. Canadian business people who go into China could easily get caught up in this if the conflict suddenly flares up,” he said.

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He added: “Any Canadian executive who crosses into China right now should justify to their spouse and their board why they think this risk is worth it.”

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