VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA - More than 300,000 Hong Kongers are believed to hold Canadian passports, and while Canada has yet to join Britain, Australia and Taiwan in making it easier for Hong Kong residents to immigrate or seek asylum because of a harsh new security law for the partly autonomous Chinese territory, Ottawa is waiting to see how many will show up.
The Canadian government has so far not proposed any changes to its immigration policies for Hong Kong residents, but it has joined other countries in their criticisms of the new security law. Ostensibly meant to combat terrorism, separatism and sedition, the new law could be used to criminalize almost all dissent in Hong Kong, its critics say.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has also suspended an extradition treaty between Canada and Hong Kong, to the dismay of China’s embassy in Ottawa.
Tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents took advantage of favorable Canadian immigration laws in the mid-1990s, investing in property and starting businesses to secure citizenship as a hedge against an uncertain future after Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997. Both those programs have since been canceled, Canadian immigration attorney David Cohen said.
For younger people, the laws offered a chance to finish high school in Canada and continue a sought-after English-language education at a university in the West on a study visa, a lengthy route to citizenship. After becoming established in Canada, many returned to Hong Kong to pursue business opportunities and raise families of their own.
Many of those who remained settled in Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal, where large communities of Hong Kong expatriates are thriving. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, there have been multiple flights every week from Hong Kong to Vancouver and Toronto.
Although it has been just weeks since the new security law took effect on June 30, Richard Kurland, a Vancouver-based immigration lawyer and policy analyst, said some of those who acquired the right to live in Canada in the 1990s or earlier are beginning to look into selling property in Hong Kong to finance the immigration of their children to Canada.
“People are making plans to dispose of some property assets that were acquired 30, 40 years years ago, which today are worth a lot more, as capital to bring the child or children to Canada,” he said. “The feeling now is with the introduction of Beijing's new security law, that the future is brighter in Canada in terms of lifestyle, and long-term goals for the Hong Kongers who do not want to live in an all-China Hong Kong.”
But Kurland said he does not expect to see a massive influx from Hong Kong unless the current situation there deteriorates. However, in the short term, he sees more students coming to Canada to study, unless the coronavirus pandemic makes that impossible.
Wenran Jiang is an adviser for the Asian Program at the Institute for Peace and Diplomacy in Toronto. Speaking from his Alberta Province home in Edmonton, he said that if the purpose of the new security law is simply to reduce foreign influence in Hong Kong, the flow of immigration across the Pacific may not change much.
Jiang said that immigration from Hong Kong, and more recently from mainland China, has given Canada an economic boost, particularly in the Vancouver and Toronto real estate markets.
“The immigration from Hong Kong and (in more) recent years from the Chinese mainland have contributed significantly … to both the growth of Vancouver and Toronto real estate markets, among other cities, and the economic contributions are significant,” Jiang said. “But at the same time, we also know after 1997, many of the immigrants from Hong Kong, although they are having the Canadian passports, they do not really invest here or even live here. They go back to Hong Kong.”
But now, he said, many of those may come back to Canada to stay if the new security law results in a significant shake-up in Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese control in 1997 after 156 years of British rule.
One of the early immigrants from Hong Kong was Vancouver talk show host Ken Tung, who came to Canada with his wife in 1980. Since then, Tung said he has seen Hong Kong residents follow him across the Pacific for a host of reasons, most importantly the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and the handover to China in 1997.
A frequent critic of the Chinese government and its new security law for Hong Kong, Tung says Canada should speed up the process of granting asylum to those claiming to be hurt by the law.
The “government of Canada should open the heart, open the arms to have the background check,” Tung said. “And (it) should accept them as a resident of Canada rather than waiting one and a half years to go through the board, go through our process. I think if this (is for) young people, (there’s) a good chance that they will become a contributing Canadian, too.”