In June 2020, China passed a controversial National Security Law for Hong Kong. The Beijing-drafted law is highly criticized by international affairs academics, world leaders, and the residents of Hong Kong alike. The third group took to the streets in protest, and are actively looking up options to leave Hong Kong should the situation escalate.
As the world watches Hong Kong’s political unrest escalate, attention is also focused on the city’s allies overseas, with emphasis on the Five Eyes. The United Kingdom (UK), which Hong Kong was a former colony of, was the first country to issue an expedited pathway for Hong Kongers who are considered a British National Overseas (BNO) citizen, allowing them to stay in the UK for a settlement period of 5 years, and apply for citizenship 12 months after settlement. Australia announced a lifeline scheme on July 9, providing current and future Hong Kong students studying in Australia 5 years post-graduate to have working rights with a pathway to permanent residency after. The United States (U.S.) introduced no formal immigration scheme, but announced The Hong Kong Safe Harbour Act on June 30, 2020. This act ensures an asylum route for political activists in Hong Kong who may face immediate danger in the city. With regards to the final two members of the Five Eyes, apart from Canada, New Zealand has not announced any immigration measures.
The European Union has set out the possibility for a response measures package on July 28. Japan has set up a nonpartisan group on July 29 with plans to propose extending the amount of time Hong Kongers can stay in Japan visa-free. Taiwan’s Taiwan-Hong Kong Services and Exchanges Office opened one day after China imposed the law over Hong Kong, offering aid for Hong Kongers wishing to study, conduct business, invest, or seek asylum in Taiwan.
Similar to its Five Eyes allies, Canada condemned China’s actions and suspended its extradition treaty with China. However, Canada did not announce any concrete immigration measures until November 12 – notably later than its allies. The new measures include a youth visa scheme similar to Australia’s, two new expedited pathways to Canadian permanent residency similar to the U.K., and amendments to the asylum-seeking process, similar to the U.S.
Out of the Five Eyes, Canada has the perk of having the largest community of its citizens (about 300,000) residing in Hong Kong. For a country with 300,000 of its citizens abroad in Hong Kong, with an equally robust community of Canadians of Hong Kong descent in Canada, what took Canada so long?
Perhaps it is the surging housing prices in Vancouver and Toronto, a large portion contributed by Chinese capital. Any retaliation from the Chinese government could negatively impact Canada’s economy, and a lack of Chinese buyers in the housing market could be detrimental to Canada’s limp economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Perhaps it is the two-year-long battle to release Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, the two Canadian diplomats detained in China. With hostage diplomacy at play, Canada’s solidarity with Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms could put them and the Canadian diplomatic corp under threat. Or, perhaps it is the ongoing court case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, whose arrest at Vancouver International Airport under a provisional U.S. extradition request was speculated to have led to the detainment of the “Two Michaels”.
While it may never be clear what caused Canada’s delayed response, one thing is sure – Hong Kong is Canada’s linchpin to a future that Prime Minister Trudeau envisions: one that addresses two seemingly dichotomous issues together: bringing Canada back to the forefront of the world stage, and protecting the economic well-being of Canadians. Instead of following in the policy footsteps of its Five Eyes allies, Canada should go further than its immigration measures.
Canada Should Step Up
1. To be a leader in foreign policymaking by…
a) Engaging the local community
Instead of a centralized response and strategy from Ottawa’s headquarters, Canada should utilize its on-ground diplomatic corp to engage with the Canadian community in the city as a consultation. The information and opinion collected through consultations can be used to inform nuanced and substantial immigration and asylum policy.
b) Establishing a dedicated office and task-force similar to Taiwan’s
Canada should consider referencing Taiwan’s strategy of implementing a special office and task-force dedicated to providing guidance for Hong Kongers wishing to study, work, or emigrate to Canada.
2. To secure the economic and overall well-being of Canadians by…
a) Attracting businesses
Offering new pathways for permanent residency through youth-targeted visa schemes is not enough. With a rising unemployment rate and numerous layoffs happening across industries in the country, Canada needs to secure enough jobs for both unemployed Canadians and Hong Kongers arriving under a work visa. Canada should look into attracting Hong Kong businesses, and even foreign businesses opting out of Hong Kong as a result of the National Security Law. This can be achieved through methods of temporary corporate tax relief or even subsidies from the Canadian government.
b) Relaxing criteria and introducing recruitment programs
Canada’s current set of immigration measures for Hong Kong largely focuses on youth talent, with eligibility criteria centred on post-secondary education in Canada or abroad completed in the last 5 years. A 2019 report published by the Hong Kong Census and Statistics Department indicates only 1.3% of the population below age 50 have studied abroad for at least one academic year. It is a stark comparison to the findings from a 2016 by-census, which indicates 32.7% of the overall population attended post-secondary education.
The measures also suggest a preferred level of command in English is linked to the completion of post-secondary in Canada or abroad. It is important to note that English is a mandatory subject in the Hong Kong education curriculum, and especially with the city’s status as a former British colony, residents have a general competence for English. The 2019 report indicated that 29.0% of the population perceived their English competence to be very good, and 37.9% indicated an average competence.
Canada should consider relaxing its immigration criteria, opening doors for skilled workers who have attended local post-secondary in English as well. Further, amid a global pandemic, Canada should also consider introducing more recruitment programs for skilled workers in the medical and research industry. For example, the Consulate General of Canada in Hong Kong and Macao recently advertised a New Brunswick nursing recruitment program targeted at Hong Kong nursing professionals. Such programs are beneficial as they guarantee employment, create immigration pathways for nurses moving to New Brunswick, and also improve the well-being of the larger New Brunswick population.
Canada has it all, the geographic location, natural resources, international alliances, trade agreements, and a strong community of Canadians of Hong Kong descent in the country. In facing the giant that is China, Canada should not be a policy-follower and pick off of its allies’ measures. Canada should do what is best for Canadians and even Hong Kongers by leveraging its qualities and taking an independent step in policy-making. Canada’s first step? Becoming a leader in the world response to Hong Kong.
Venus Fung is an MA candidate at the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs, specializing in diplomacy and foreign policy. Her background in communications and public affairs along with her multicultural upbringing fuelled interests in diplomacy 2.0, and their intersections with conflict resolution, diasporas, and Canada-Asia Pacific relations.
Banner image of Hong Kong Protests by Manson Yim, courtesy of Unsplash.