In an announcement earlier this summer by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, the government quietly revealed its plan to remove educational requirements under the work experience stream of the Hong Kong permanent residence pathways policy. The result? A 70% surge in applications, skyrocketing from 473 in July to 805 in August. This move showcases Canada’s forward-looking approach that acknowledges the talents and contributions of Hong Kong residents.

To date, approximately 4,290 Hong Kongers have applied for Canadian permanent residency since 2021, with nearly 2,000 approvals granted. Amidst these numbers, the question that emerges is how exactly Canada’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (Canada’s IPS) — a government initiative focused on promoting peace, expanding trade and investment, and strengthening regional partnerships to promote Canada’s interests and values in the region — will incorporate this influx of talent.

Thus far, the Canadian IPS regarding Hong Kong has been consistent with an earlier announcement this year that expanded the eligibility for the open work permit program for Hong Kongers. With this change, Hong Kong residents who have graduated in the past 10 years can apply to gain work experience in Canada for 3 years, which can turn into a pathway to permanent residency. While these policy changes have been a strong start, Canada’s approach to both Hong Kong and the broader Indo-Pacific region needs to be nested into a coordinated series of actions, rather than individual departmental policies.

Canada’s IPS clearly recognizes the need for a “whole-of-government approach” as well as a “strategic implementation of the strategy.” However, there is a lack of articulation and communication to the broader general public on how these objectives will be achieved. For instance, the only explicit reference to Hong Kong in Canada’s IPS states that “Canada will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Hong Kong” against the “National Security Law and…the deterioration of individual and collective freedoms.” This vague language, and the overall dearth of references to Hong Kong, raise uncertainties about the role that Hong Kong might assume within the larger Strategy. While Hong Kong has been historically seen as a key financial hub in Asia, the significant political changes in recent years have altered its position as a nexus for business within the region. This shift requires a strategic response from Canada that goes beyond trade embargoes and engages with Hong Kong at a people-to-people level.

Leveraging a Canadian Strategy for Engagement

One reason why Canada must pay attention to Hong Kong is the large presence of Canadians in the region. Hong Kong is often recognized as having one of the largest Canadian communities abroad and has earned the reputation of being “Asia’s most Canadian city.” According to the South China Morning Post, Canada offers the easiest pathway to permanent residency for Hong Kongers among Western nations, reflecting historical trans-Pacific migration to Canadian cities such as Vancouver and Toronto.

Canada’s IPS should consider capitalizing on this pool of Canadian talent to help inform future policy decisions. By tapping into the expertise of Hong Konger-Canadian academics, businesses, industry associations, and other professionals in the region, Canada can gain necessary on-the-ground knowledge to execute its Strategy more effectively. This could be done through consultations, workshops or knowledge exchange programs. The Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library is one example of the types of successful collaborations that emerged out of the Canada and Hong Kong Project in the 1990s. The project mandate was to conduct research and workshops on  Canada and Hong Kong relations, with an emphasis on the events leading up to the 1997 handover. This initiative later inspired the leadership of the project to establish the Canada–Hong Kong Library at the University of Toronto, which holds the largest research collection on Hong Kong in the world outside of Hong Kong. Such engagement is an example of how Canada’s IPS can facilitate the exchange of new knowledge and perspectives.

Similarly, the Indo-Pacific strategy aims to leverage Canada’s reputation as “a top education destination by launching over 1,000 scholarship and fellowship opportunities for Canadian students and for students from ASEAN countries.” Although Hong Kong is not currently included in this initiative by virtue of not being in Southeast Asia, the current emigration trend in Hong Kong, particularly among young professionals, presents a strategic opportunity for Canada to expand its Indo-Pacific initiatives. For example, this could include scholarships and fellowships to Hong Kongers to attract talented individuals seeking new opportunities to study in Canada. Such an initiative would serve a dual benefit aligning with the existing Hong Kong pathway to permanent residency policy for in-Canada graduates while facilitating their long-term integration into the Canadian workforce. 

At an institutional level, in line with its commitment to multilateralism, Canada’s IPS could be used to strategically engage with Hong Kong through forums such as the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC). On a broader scale, all members of APEC have committed to the APEC Putrajaya Vision, which envisions “an open, dynamic, resilient, and peaceful Asia-Pacific community by 2040.” Thus, participation in forums like APEC can advance economic interdependence, deepen economic ties between member economies, and enhance mutual understanding and trust. The Hong Kong government has highlighted that its “full and separate membership in APEC is also an example of the successful implementation of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ concept,” emphasizing its “autonomy in external trade and economic matters.” Canada, along with all other APEC member economies, should engage in collaborative efforts to contribute to a peaceful and stable global environment and ensure the participation of all APEC member economies, including Hong Kong, in existing global frameworks, norms, and regulations. For example, Hong Kong currently chairs the APEC Economic Committee, which could provide a specific and targeted forum for Canada to engage with Hong Kong. Such collaborations can be facilitated at the working level through the dozens of working groups, committees, and task groups already in existence.

Amidst the recent complexities of government-imposed sanctions banning Hong Kong Chief Executive John Lee from attending the APEC Leaders’ Meeting in San Francisco, Canada should be reminded of the importance of people-to-people engagement. While the bipartisan decision from US lawmakers will still allow Hong Kong to send a delegation this November, provided officials are not on any sanctions lists, evolving political and economic dynamics present obstacles to substantive bilateral cooperation. Focusing instead on human-centred engagement that transcends government actions can play a crucial role in maintaining cross-cultural relationships and supporting Hong Kong’s residents. Under such circumstances, academic collaborations, cultural exchanges, and professional networks, if cultivated properly, can offer cooperation that can endure geopolitical challenges and reinforce a shared commitment to partnerships that advance diversity and prosperity.

While long-term strategy details have yet to emerge from Canada’s IPS, these recent announcements highlight the significant role of migration as a crucial implementation channel for the Strategy. Incorporating Hong Kong into Canada’s IPS is not just a strategic move; rather, it is a commitment to seizing economic opportunities, fostering regional stability, and cultivating strong people-to-people ties that demonstrate Canada’s commitment as a country oriented to the Indo-Pacific.

Justin Kwan is a Senior Program Manager at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada and a Non-Resident Lloyd and Lilian Vasey Fellow at the Pacific Forum in Honolulu. He is also a specialist in the Asia-Pacific region with the Rising Experts Program of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy, a Washington, D.C. non-profit.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of any entities he represents.

Picture via Wikimedia Commons

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