As Canada fights to free its citizens still held hostage in China, think again of the seven million people in Hong Kong — a good many of them also Canadian citizens — fighting for their own democratic freedoms.
Hong Kong has more Canadian expatriates than anywhere else, a legacy of the 1997 handover of the former British colony to full Chinese sovereignty. Back then, our passports amounted to an insurance policy against misconduct by the new mainland rulers.
Which is why dual citizens in Hong Kong almost never let their passports expire, renewing them more frequently and faithfully than in any other territory. By the hundreds of thousands, those travel documents have served as a perennial hedge against predictable uncertainty.
Especially today. As pitched battles erupt against the backdrop of Hong Kong’s highrise canyons — spreading from the legislative council to luxury shopping centres, from the airport terminal to subway stations — we are witnessing a power struggle unlike any other.
Most democracy protests take place in the developing world, where political and economic institutions are still embryonic. By contrast, the fight for Hong Kong’s future is unfolding in one of the world’s most affluent, educated and urbanized societies.
The territory is still stunted thanks to its unique history and geography — first under British colonial rule, then Chinese Communist hegemony. When London and Beijing negotiated the transition, China agreed to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy for 50 years under the rubric of “one country, two systems.”
It took far less than 50 years for the so-called “two systems” to become as one.
Restricted by voting rules, relegated to the role of spectators, people were transformed into protesters. Peaceful demonstrations erupted in 2014 with the Umbrella Movement, and again this year, when activists pushed back against a draconian extradition law that opened the door to further political persecution by the mainland.
The response has been a campaign of intimidation, starting with shrill rhetoric from local and Beijing officials, and culminating with a show of force by the People’s Liberation Army (which released a chilling video depicting its troops rehearsing for rioters).
Beijing’s preferred method, at home and abroad, is indirect manipulation behind the scenes, which explains recent militia-style attacks — linked to the feared Triad criminal gangs — against peaceful protesters in the environs of Hong Kong, while local police looked on and retreated.
China has its own ways of getting its way. Ottawa had a taste of those hardball tactics when China took a one-time Canadian diplomat hostage on the mainland in retaliation for our detention of a top Huawei executive in response to a U.S. request.
China furiously dismissed our extradition obligations with the Americans, oblivious to the irony that Hong Kong’s latest crisis was provoked by an extradition law that would have sent fugitives back to Beijing at its behest.
Despite flirting with pragmatism and experimenting with reform over the decades, China is today taking a hard line at home and abroad. Hong Kong and Canada are both caught in the net.
Hong Kong’s aspirations are now trapped in time. Little wonder the younger generation of protesters is defiantly trying to make up for lost time, unleashing pent-up forces that have been bottled up and betrayed since the 1997 handover, before many of them were born.
As Canadians watch an unpredictable confrontation unfold, whether from a distance or up close in Hong Kong, it is hard to fathom how much longer seven million people can be denied the democracy they were promised so long ago.
Martin Regg Cohn is a columnist for Torstar Syndication Services.