Former top Canadian diplomat calls on Canada to impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials

A former Canadian diplomat said today it's time for Canada to consider sanctions as Hong Kong braces for a possible crackdown on pro-democracy protests by mainland China.

'I think we have nothing to lose' - John Higginbotham

In this June 16, 2019 photo, protesters march on the streets against an extradition bill in Hong Kong. (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

A former Canadian diplomat said Thursday it's time for Canada to consider sanctions on individuals in Hong Kong as the former British colony braces for a possible crackdown on pro-democracy protests by mainland China.

John Higginbotham, a former assistant deputy minister at Global Affairs who worked in Canadian embassies in Beijing and Hong Kong, said more aggressive tactics are required as China shows no signs of backing down from the hard line it's taken over the future of Hong Kong.

"I think we are entering an era of tension with China rather than our dream of long-run co-operation," he said.

Higginbotham said Canada's current China strategy isn't working. He said Canada has been slow to act to protect its 300,000 citizens living in Hong Kong, and to push back against restrictions Beijing has placed on Canadian canola and meat imports and the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

"I think we have nothing to lose," he said. "I think our relationship with China has reached a new low. And I think we are going to have to make some realistic adjustments to our policy towards China."

Higginbotham said he didn't want to go into details but argued Canada should consider imposing sanctions on senior Hong Kong politicians and businesspeople.

If Canada goes down this route, Higginbotham said the government should rally its allies to take the same approach. He said Canada should seek a special joint statement from all nations at the G7 in France this week about the situation in Hong Kong.

Conservatives call for a tougher stance

Although unprepared to call for sanctions, an outspoken Conservative critic of the Liberals' Asia policy, MP Michael Chong, said the Liberals have been late and lukewarm in their defence of democratic rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.

Michael Chong addresses a Conservative Party leadership debate Monday, February 13, 2017 in Montreal. (Canadian Press)

"No, I don't think they have been tough enough," Chong told CBC News Thursday. "And I think they have been slow out of the gate on commenting on the events."

Chong, whose father was born in Hong Kong, slammed the Liberal government for its response to the past weeks of mass protests. Chong said the Canadian government needs to send a clear signal it will oppose military action by Beijing to quash the protests.

The Conservative MP's criticism comes during a week that saw Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outline his government's foreign policy agenda and host a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

At a press conference Thursday, Freeland said Canada takes a keen interest in Hong Kong and is keeping a close eye on developments in the country.

Freeland, along with EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini, has expressed support for the right of Hong Kong's citizens to peaceful assembly. Both also have called for dialogue among all stakeholders.

That prompted a backlash from the Chinese Embassy, which said in an online statement that Canada should "immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China's internal affairs."

"Under the current situation, the Canadian side should be cautious on its words and deeds regarding the Hong Kong related issue," said the statement from an unnamed spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Canada.

The protests in Hong Kong have been largely peaceful, although there have been some violent episodes. Police in the city have been accused of using excessive force. Chinese troops have assembled at a stadium in Shenzhen, the city that links Hong Kong to China's mainland, raising fears of a military response.

Chong pointed out that Ottawa hasn't yet assured its citizens in Hong Kong it has a plan to evacuate them in the event of widespead violence. The government has said publicly it has such a strategy, but it hasn't shared many details. That, Chong said, doesn't give him much sense of comfort.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo looks on as Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland responds to a question during a joint news conference in Ottawa, Thursday, Aug. 22, 2019. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Chong cited the 2006 evacuation of Canadians in Lebanon after Israel launched several attacks against the militant group Hezbollah. Chong and his Conservative Party were in government at the time.

"That was a very difficult thing logistically to organize," Chong said. "We have some 300,000 citizens living in Hong Kong — 30 times the number of people we needed to evacuate from Lebanon."


  • A previous version of this story incorrectly quoted MP Michael Chong saying a potential evacuation of Canadians from Hong Kong would be six times larger than the 2006 evacuation of citizens from Lebanon. In fact, he said it would be much more – 30 times larger in his estimation.
    Aug 23, 2019 2:06 PM ET

About the Author

David Thurton is a national reporter in CBC's Parliamentary Bureau. He's worked for CBC in Fort McMurray, the Maritimes and in Canada's Arctic.

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