OTTAWA — The foreign ministers of Canada and the United Kingdom are warning that hundreds of thousands of citizens in Hong Kong could be in jeopardy due to a new law that would allow China to claw back substantial power over the region — warnings that the Chinese embassy in Canada has denounced as “irresponsible” and “crude interference.”
A pro-China Hong Kong government recently proposed a law that would newly allow the Chinese authoritarian state to demand the surrender of individuals from the commercial hub to the mainland.
“We are concerned about the potential effect of these proposals on the large number of Canadian and U.K. citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation,” says a statement from Chrystia Freeland and Jeremy Hunt released Thursday morning.
The proposals could impact negatively on “rights and freedoms,” the ministers’ statement reads. “It is vital that extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with ‘one country, two systems’ and fully respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. We have made these views clear in our respective conversations with the Hong Kong government.”
Freeland and Hunt are urging that the proposals be subject to “the highest levels of scrutiny,” and that the government should allow adequate time for “proper consideration to all alternative options and safeguards.”
The Chinese embassy however, said Canada should “stop interfering.”
“Ignoring the facts and truths, the Canadian side and the British side jointly made irresponsible remarks about the revision of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance by the government of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, this was a crude interference in the internal affairs of China and the Hong Kong SAR,” the embassy said in a statement to the National Post.
“By amending the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, the Hong Kong SAR government aims to address existing individual cases and improve the existing SAR legal system, which is beyond reproach.
“The attempt of a few foreign governments to politicize this matter and make an issue of it is clearly an interference in China’s internal affairs. We solemnly urge the Canadian side to strictly abide by the international law and basic norms of international relations and stop interfering in the Hong Kong SAR-related issues and China’s internal affairs,” the embassy said.
The strong words come amid an ongoing breakdown between Canada and China over Canada’s December arrest of a Huawei executive for extradition to the United States, and a host of retaliatory measures by China since then including the arrest of two Canadian citizens on what Canada contends are flimsy espionage charges.
Hong Kong, which was promised autonomy and democratic leadership when it was transferred to China from British rule in 1997, is home to one of the largest Canadian communities outside of Canada.
Approximately 300,000 Canadian citizens live and work there, according to Global Affairs Canada, and the vulnerability of Canadian citizens to arbitrary arrest is clearly on the foreign minister’s mind. According to a statement from Freeland’s office Wednesday, the release of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor is “a top priority for the whole government.”
The U.K. is among many countries that have voiced support for Canada’s position on Kovrig and Spavor, with Hunt expressing in December he was “deeply concerned by suggestions of a political motivation for the detention of two Canadian citizens by the Chinese government.” Hong Kong is also home to a large community of U.K. citizens.
The South China Morning Post, based in Hong Kong, reported on Thursday that the city’s security minister was announcing new safeguards would be put into the extradition bill to assuage what the newspaper described as “a nervous business community.” Some 130,000 residents of Hong Kong took to the streets last month in protest, and another demonstration is scheduled for next week.
It is vital that extradition arrangements in Hong Kong are in line with ‘one country, two systems’
The secretary for security, John Lee Ka-chiu, announced on Thursday limits to the scope of extraditable crimes, including a requirement that China could only demand the extradition of individuals accused of crimes punishable by seven or more years in prison, according to the SCMP. Another change would require China’s equivalent of the Supreme Court or its equivalent of the Attorney General to approve the transfer requests.
But Hong Kong’s independence, or the semblance of it, has consistently eroded over the past five years. Leaders of its democracy movement, including elected members of the legislature, have been persecuted and protestors arrested for insulting Beijing.
Canada and the U.K. have not been the only foreign observers to worry publicly about the proposed extradition changes, which the Hong Kong government expects to pass before summer.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with a delegation of pro-democracy Hong Kongers in Washington, D.C., earlier this month, and according to the state department he “expressed concern about the Hong Kong government’s proposed amendments to the Fugitive Ordinance law, which threatens Hong Kong’s rule of law.” And the European Union issued a formal diplomatic complaint or démarche to Hong Kong last week, Reuters reported, expressing its own concerns.