A Hong Kong immigration bill threatens democratic values, and Canada must defend them

An opinion piece to the Globe and Mail by
Winnie Ng, chairperson of Toronto Association for Democracy in China and
Hassan Yussuff, president of the Canadian Labour Congress

TADC encourage you to write to your MP expressing your concern on the situation and urging the Canadian government to act immediately before it is too late.

Ever since Hong Kong’s National Security Law took effect on July 1, 2020, the nakedness of Beijing’s control over the Hong Kong regional government has been swift and unimaginably aggressive.

All pretense and rhetoric have been unmasked and replaced by a systematic and pervasive effort to wipe out a new generation of pro-democracy activists, while at the same time crushing long-time advocates. The latest such blow came on April 16, with the guilty verdict of prominent pro-democracy activists, including 82-year-old Martin Lee, known as the father of Hong Kong’s democracy, and with the imprisonment of Lee Cheuk-yan, the general-secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, or HKCTU, for “unauthorized assembly.”

As fellow labour activists, we have known and worked with the HKCTU’s Mr. Lee for the past three decades. The confederation, which was founded in 1990 after the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, is the only independent labour central body in Hong Kong and is a sister organization of the Canadian Labour Congress. Mr. Lee is a much-respected labour advocate and a dear friend to the Canadian labour movement on international solidarity work through his visits to Canada. He is also the chairperson of the HK Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, the lead organization for the annual June 4 candlelight vigil in Hong Kong.

Like other pro-democracy movement leaders, Mr. Lee had long expected he would be among the first targets of China’s war on human rights in Hong Kong. He had many opportunities to flee but he chose to stay on the island to continue the fight, sacrificing his own liberties in the process.

There are many heroes like Mr. Lee, but there are also many Hong Kongers who rightly fear for their and their family’s safety, and who are seeking to leave their homeland. They have been unable to do so, however, in part because of the travel ban currently imposed by many countries during the COVID-19 pandemic – and now, according to the Hong Kong Bar Association (HKBA), it might become nearly impossible for certain people to flee the country.

A new immigration bill, passed by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council on Wednesday, will empower the secretary for security to make regulations that could grant power to the director of immigration to potentially bar any individuals, whether they are Hong Kong residents or not, from boarding a flight without first going to court. Such unfettered power vested in the director of immigration could carry serious consequences on the freedom of movement currently enjoyed by residents, and will further intensify the control on those whom the government may deem to be “troublemakers” from leaving, as is currently the case on China’s mainland, where many human-rights lawyers and dissidents are forbidden to use even train services, let alone airline carriers.

It could also potentially restrict the mobility of Canadian expatriates residing in Hong Kong, as well as the hundreds of pro-democracy activists who are stranded in Hong Kong because of COVID-19 travel bans in place in Canada and elsewhere.

Hong Kong’s Security Bureau, for its part, has said the law would be applied only to inbound flights and is aimed at preventing illegal immigrants from entering. The HKBA, however, has flagged that the bill sets out no clear limits or safeguards on this ability to restrict freedom of travel.

The law will take effect on Aug. 1, and Canada must act before that. The minister of immigration, refugee and citizenship should immediately grant special travel permits for those who are at risk of arrests for their political actions. Furthermore, Canada should also expedite any applications that have been submitted under the various recently announced special programs for Hong Kong residents and issue the necessary exemptions from the current travel ban.

The Canadian government must also allow extended family members (including parents and adult children) of Canadians living in Hong Kong to accompany them to Canada, should they choose to evacuate Hong Kong before the new exit control comes into effect.

We must step up and expedite all humanitarian measures that will assist those who are most at risk with a safe and secure process to leave Hong Kong for Canada.

The people of Hong Kong have attempted to stand up against a powerful authoritarian regime to safeguard the core values of democracy, freedom of expression and the rule of law. Canada, and its allies, must not let them down.

Published on Globe and Mail on April 29, 2021