Hong Kong human rights activists to be honoured at Halifax international security forum

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 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.

A ‘very wrong signal,’ says ambassador

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.”

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

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.

Peter Van Praagh, the president of the forum, said the conversation is long overdue.

“We need to be talking about China and it’s not too late to be talking about China,” he said at the opening of the event.

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.

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