Thursday, May 07, 2015

Burton - Presentation to the Foreign Affairs Committee - May 5, 2015

Charles Burton
Presentation to the Foreign Affairs Committee
May 5, 2015

Thank you very much for inviting me to appear today to give evidence on the situation in Hong Kong.

Let me first provide some context based on my knowledge of Canada's interaction with the Government of China and the British Embassy in Beijing with regard to the arrangements being made made for Hong Kong's return to Chinese sovereignty when I served as a diplomat at the Canadian Embassy to China on my first posting in the early 1990s.

Canada was quite engaged with this matter largely due to 2 major factors.

First of all, the Chinese community in Canada was very concerned about what would happen in Hong Kong after 1997. At the time the Chinese community in Canada consisted largely of Cantonese speaking Canadians most of whom had connections with Hong Kong.

As a result of the political uncertainty we had very high levels of immigration from Hong Kong to Canada in the years leading up to 1997.

According to the website of our Canadian Consulate General (and I quote) “Hong Kong boasts one of the largest Canadian communities abroad (an estimated 295,000). This community, along with some 500,000 people of Hong Kong descent in Canada, plays a dynamic role in building vibrant bilateral relations.”

There are estimates that place the numbers of Canadians in Hong Kong even higher.
I would say as an aside that if the current crackdown on civic liberties in Hong Kong continues we could see a large number of people leaving Hong Kong to resume residency in Canada.

And if things continue to deteriorate there we could have quite a significant increase in the number of consular cases involving Canadians in Hong Kong.

Secondly, at that time when the issue of Hong Kong’s future was in question, much of Canada's trade with China was brokered through Hong Kong. Canadian companies that did business in China typically had their headquarters in Hong Kong in those years.

So it was really very important to Canada that the transition to Chinese sovereignty be done in such a way as to protect our significant economic interests there.

We sought and received assurances from both the government of the People's Republic of China and the government of the United Kingdom over the promises of “one country-two systems” “no change for 50 years” and that “Hong Kong people would govern Hong Kong”.

With regard to the last it was clear that this meant that Hong Kong would be governed by Hong Kong people who would represent the aspirations and interests of the people of Hong Kong.

There was absolutely no indication that this would mean that the citizens of Hong Kong would be told in effect “you can elect whoever you want providing it is either Tweedledum or Tweedledee, both of whom would be representing the interests of the Chinese Communist Party and its business elite in Hong Kong” rather than the other way round.

We had good feelings about the 50 years no change formula. We understood from statements by Mr Deng Xiaoping and his successors that China intended to make a political transformation to modern norms of democracy and the rule of law.

So we were expecting that the “one country, two systems” issue would be resolved by China gradually coming into compliance with international noms of governance.

Indeed, over the period of the negotations on Hong Kong there were strong indications that this was happening already

For example, in the early 1990s China began to have free and democratic elections of village heads. We expected that this would expand upwards in a staged way to county heads provincial governors and ultimately a universal suffrage election for the President of China.

Moreover in 1998 China signed the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Canada was immediately very forthcoming with offers of developmental aid to assist the Chinese authorities in bringing Chinese law and practices into compliance with this Covenant and with assistance in how to fulfil the relevant UN reporting requirements

Indeed up until 2012 the Chinese leadership still gave periodic assurances that democratic political institutions and full rule of law were social goals, although the leaders always added the caveat that these could not be fully realised immediately due to historical, cultural and developmental factors.

So we were told should wait patiently until the moment came. That was a lot of waiting, needless to say.

But after he assumed power late in 2012, the current leader. President Xi Jinping made a series of statements strongly and explicitly renouncing key political ideals such as constitutionalism; freedom of the press, speech and assembly; judicial independence; and separation of powers as incompatible with sustained Communist Party rule in China.

One of the Party’s official newspapers the Global Times newspaper has condemned these "a ticket to hell” for China.

So I would see the recent backtracking on Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong and the fraying promise of 50 years no change as connected to this new political orientation of the Chinese Communist Party.

So where does that leave Canada?

It is clear that the Chinese government sovereignty over Hong Kong is conditioned by its international agreements comprised by the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.

I would therefore suggest that the Government of Canada take the lead with like-minded nations informally monitoring China's compliance with the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. It is very much in Canada's national interest to do this

Finally I would say in general that it would be prudent for Canada to respond to the Government of China's discarding of its commitment to democracy and human rights (as we understand those terms) and the moving backwards on legal protections for site Chinese citizens

by readjusting our 3 part foreign policy mix of realising Canadian prosperity, security and Canadian values in our programming with China to re-emphasise our commitment to Canadian values,

while strengthening our programming with China to promote trade and investment and to address Chinese espionage in Canada.

We are perceived as offering tacit consent for what it is happening in Hong Kong and in China at large by not speaking out and following up what we say with constructive programming.

I do not think that this will have a significant impact on our trade with China if we manage it correctly. And Canada is strengthened in our foreign relations if we gain us more respect by being true to what we believe.

Ministers Baird and Paradis noted last December 10 in their statement to mark Human Rights Day “Canada stands for what is right and just, regardless of whether it is popular, convenient or expedient.”

I believe that the people of Canada expect nothing less from us.

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