As China pushes back at Washington, Halifax security forum honours Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement

A pro-democracy activist fresh from the street battles in Hong Kong will join an ex-politician in accepting a public service award from the organizers of the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday.

The decision to present the John McCain Prize to Figo Chan and Emily Lau is certain to offend Beijing

Police in riot gear move through a cloud of smoke as they detain a protester at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University in Hong Kong on Monday, Nov. 18. (Ng Han Guan/The Associated Press)

A pro-democracy activist fresh from the street battles in Hong Kong will join an ex-politician in accepting a public service award from the organizers of the Halifax International Security Forum on Saturday.

Activist Figo Chan and Emily Lau, a former member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council and a prominent advocate for human rights in the former colony, will accept the award on behalf of the people of Hong Kong — who have staged months of leaderless protests in the city in the face of an increasingly harsh response from Chinese authorities.

In this Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016 photo, Hong Kong pro-democracy lawmaker Emily Lau talks to a girl during a election campaign in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu/The Associated Press)

The John McCain Prize for Leadership in Public Service is not merely a major human rights win for the protesters. It likely will be seen as a powerful political statement at a time of heightened tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland.

It's also almost certain to provoke official outrage in Beijing — especially coming after the almost-unanimous passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act this week by the U.S. House of Representatives.

This is not the (NBA). This is Canada ... This is Halifax, where representatives of the free peoples of the world, and those who aspire to be free, come together.- Peter Van Praagh, president of the Halifax International Security Forum

"Of course, there will be some, perhaps many, that criticize or even attack us for commending individuals who stand for freedom, who take risks for freedom, who demand freedom," said Peter Van Praagh, president of the forum. He cited the Chinese backlash directed against the National Basketball Association over tweets related to the protests in Hong Kong.

"This is not the National Basketball Association. This is Canada. This is the United States of America. This is Halifax, where representatives of the free peoples of the world, and those who aspire to be free, come together."

Meanwhile, the new Chinese ambassador to Canada condemned Washington's actions on Friday and warned it could intensify tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland.

"We have stressed … the United States is using its domestic law to interfere in other countries' internal affairs because Hong Kong is part of China. So that's very dangerous," said Cong Peiwu. "It sends a very wrong signal to embolden those violent and radical criminals to be engaged [in] even more violent activities that will disrupt Hong Kong's stability and prosperity."

Ambassador of the People's Republic of China to Canada Cong Peiwu participates in a roundtable interview with journalists at the Embassy of China in Ottawa, on Friday, Nov. 22, 2019. (Justin Tang/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Peiwu also suggested Canada should not weigh in on the ongoing violence in Hong Kong.

China is a major focus of discussion at the annual security forum, being held for the eleventh time this weekend in the Nova Scotia capital. Specifically, delegates are talking about how Western democracies can deal with the rising superpower, which has shown itself more and more willing to ignore the established international order to pursue its interests.

"Indeed, it is no longer a secret that [President] Xi Jinping's China is working to make the world safe for authoritarianism," said Van Praagh. "It is time for a comprehensive China strategy for the U.S., Canada and their allies that make the world safe for democracy."

The conversation, he said, is long overdue.

Van Praagh called the passage of the Hong Kong act by the U.S. Congress an important statement.

China's economy is deeply embedded within the supply chains of western democracies, making it difficult for smaller states like Canada to confront Beijing. Van Praagh said the discussion this weekend will be multi-layered but based on umambiguous principles.

"This is a country, a big country that does not share our values. And yet there Canadians ... a lot of Americans who do a lot of business [with China] and it does create jobs," he said.

"And so, what are willing to surrender in terms of our own values in cooperation with China? And where is that line drawn?"

Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan speaks at the opening news briefing before the start of the Halifax International Security Forum in Halifax on Friday November 22, 2019. (Tim Krochak/The Canadian Press)

Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, freshly reappointed after this fall's election and acting as official host of the forum, took the opportunity today to again call for the release of two Canadians — former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor — who were arrested by Chinese officials in response to the Canadian detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S warrant.

"We are not going to back away from the values our nation holds when it comes to human rights and the international rules-based order," Sajjan said.

Part of the problem for western democracies is how to define the new relationship with China. Van Praagh was asked whether Beijing's actions and statements make it an adversary.

"There is different language we can use. Competitor. Strategic competitor. Adversary," he said. "I think it's clear China and Canada do not share the same interests."

Sajjan took a softer tone, suggesting that while the relationship is complicated, "we don't consider China an adversary."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.


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