Help for Canadians in Hong Kong announced as committee says Uighurs face ‘genocide’

OTTAWA — The federal government announced long-awaited plans Thursday to help Canadians living in Hong Kong amid the Chinese clampdown on democracy in the territory.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino said Canada is creating a new measure targeting students and young people in Hong Kong: a work permit designed to help them get permanent Canadian residency faster.

Mendicino said Canadian citizens and permanent residents living in the territory can return to Canada at any time and Ottawa will expedite any documents they need. The initiative could also bring in more people to bolster Canada’s health-care sector as it fights a second wave of COVID-19, he added.

This announcement was part of Canada’s response to the Chinese government’s imposition in June of a new national-security law in Hong Kong that is widely seen as eroding democratic protections there.

“Canada remains deeply concerned about China’s passage of the new national-security law. We have unequivocally stated that this legislation and the unilateral powers within it are in direct conflict with China’s international obligations and undermine the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” said Mendicino.

Hong Kong was supposed to operate under that framework after Britain handed its former colony over to Beijing in 1997 under an international agreement. But human-rights and democracy advocates say Beijing’s new national-security law is undermining freedom in Hong Kong.

The British charity Hong Kong Watch applauded the Canadian initiative, saying one of its top officials, Lord Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, broached the subject in a letter to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne this past summer.

“I would like to put on record our wholehearted support for such a scheme, which would reiterate the Canadian government’s long record of defending human rights, democracy, and the rule of law,” says Patten’s letter.

Mendicino echoed Wednesday’s statement by Champagne that expressed Canada’s deep disappointment in China’s latest decision to expel four elected lawmakers from office.

“Actions such as these demonstrate a clear disregard for the Basic Law and are having the consequential effect of eroding human rights in Hong Kong,” said Mendicino.

Thursday’s developments are sure to anger China, which has warned the Trudeau government not to intervene in Hong Kong, and to butt out on levelling criticism related to Uighurs.

Earlier Thursday, members of the House of Commons committee looking into the plight of ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s Xinjiang province were unequivocal in levelling an accusation of genocide against China’s ruling Communist party.

China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, has rejected the accusations of wrongdoing by his government in Xinjiang, and warned the Trudeau government not to help pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, using language that was viewed as a threat to Canadian passport holders in the territory.

“The prime minister said that those comments by the Chinese ambassador were unacceptable,” said Mendicino.

Canada’s relations with China are at an all-time low because the People’s Republic has imprisoned two Canadian men, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in what the Trudeau government has branded as coercive or hostage diplomacy.

Kovrig and Spavor were rounded up by Chinese authorities in December 2018, nine days after Canada arrested Chinese high-tech scion Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.

Mendicino said the government remains concerned about the plight of the Uighurs. 

The panel rendered its genocide finding after hearing harrowing testimony from survivors of China’s imprisonment of Uighur Muslims. They shared accounts of their mass incarceration, rape and forced sterilization of women, and mass surveillance. 

Critics say China has detained as many as a million Uighurs and members of other Muslim groups in what amount to mass prisons, where they can be re-educated.

“The subcommittee is persuaded that the actions of the Chinese Communist Party constitute genocide, as laid out in the Genocide Convention,” said Liberal MP Peter Fonseca, the committee chair.

“In particular, the subcommittee would like to thank the Uighur witnesses that provided evidence at great risk to themselves and their families living in Xinjiang.”

Edmonton New Democrat MP Heather McPherson said the most compelling testimony she heard came from women who “survived the concentration camps and shared their stories of abuse and violence.”

“It has been shown again and again that to wipe out a people, to perpetrate a genocide, one must destroy the women. Acts designed to prevent births constitute genocide,” she said.

The subcommittee made clear it was targeting the Chinese Communist Party specifically.

“This is not about a people. This is not about a country,” said Montreal Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi.

“What we want are these practices to stop and then we will have nothing to say on the matter of the Uighur people.”

The subcommittee’s report will eventually wend its way up to the full Commons committee on foreign affairs and international development before it makes its way to the government for a response.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 12, 2020.

Mike Blanchfield, The Canadian Press