Hong Kong hot potato landing squarely in British Columbia’s lap

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can’t afford to take his eye off the festering dispute with China

A statement: in support of the daily democratic demands in the streets of Hong Kong, rather milquetoast in language by western standards, to speak for the 300,000 there who hold Canadian passports.

A call: to de-escalate and make peace, but listen to what its people are saying.

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A clear response: an unambiguous and personal warning, an accusation of irresponsibility, of gross interference in its affairs, of the absolutely wrong line crossed.

An implication: more retribution will come if Canada does not stop “before it’s too late.”

Justin Trudeau may have his eye on the electoral prize Oct. 21, but he cannot afford to take his eye off the festering dispute with a country he entered office four years ago hoping to charm. (No, not America, but it’s hardly worth ignoring, either.)

The December arrest of Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. CFO Meng Wanzhou, detained since on behalf of American authorities seeking extradition, was itself an offence to China. But the statement of support for the Hong Kong demonstrators by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took China’s cake. Canada now finds itself not just collaterally affected by the arrest at the behest of America but in China’s crosshairs as it scurries to represent hundreds of thousands of residents there — actually, the entire special administrative region — who may soon face more than stern official statements and local police quelling of their demonstrations.

It is difficult to fathom what other options Canada had in December and last week, but it is also difficult to fathom how Canada avoids further consequences in the short and medium term.

Complicating matters were last week’s revelations from Meng’s defence team, including a video and details of her interrogation by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) at Vancouver airport.

On the one hand, an affidavit by one of the CBSA’s agents alleges Meng confirmed Huawei has an office in Iran, a matter that the United States could connect to a violation of its Iranian sanctions. On the other hand, her lawyers assert her detention without their presence for four hours was a pretence for an interrogation on behalf of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation — that the extent of their questioning without her arrest was unlawful.

These matters, part of a trove of documents released to media with the court’s approval, point to one whale of a hearing. The next court date is Sept. 23, and what the prime minister must pray is that the protracted process will be punted post-election.

Meantime, the runny-egg Trudeau of old now faces the task of becoming hard-boiled. Hong Kong tension more likely fulminates than dissipates. Into election mode, he has no choice but to pivot in principled support of its democratic movement over the practical support of a greater economic entree into the superpower’s market.

Naturally, this is not an issue bothering people in Nova Scotia. Not unsettling folks in Ford Nation, far as I can tell. No, the hot mess is in our British Columbian laps, a more dynamic election issue than the pipeline because it requires our prime minister to be more of a forceful statesman than a fortuitous selfie.

There is no jubilance in having the back of democracy. It is a leader’s solemn task, like the other country or not, and in this case there is some inconvenience in tangling with the Xi Jinping regime because Canada’s prosperity could more quickly accrue with his blessing.

Thus the test of Justin Trudeau. He cannot have it both ways in this zero-sum game. Every sound bite about Hong Kong is a dog bite into Beijing. Every mention of the two Canadians imprisoned for no seeming reason by China, every pledge for the people of Hong Kong, is a dare to tighten the grip on Canadian investment, exports and commerce.

Let’s just see.

The economy could be set aside in this election for the larger matters of who might best navigate Canada’s place in the world. As for the environment: sure thing, there is steady and daunting climate change — and it’s also happening today, just across the Pacific Ocean.

Kirk LaPointe is editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.

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