Arrest of Denise Ho enrages activists in Hong Kong, Canada

Outrage and renewed calls to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics followed news Wednesday of the arrest of Canadian Denise Ho, a pop star and democracy advocate in Hong Kong, and others involved with an online publication on charges related to sedition.

Observers say the arrests throw into question the safety of Canadians in China and called for Ottawa to re-evaluate its relations with Beijing.

Along with Canadian politicians, a consortium of 18 organizations concerned with human rights in China, including Alliance Canada Hong Kong and the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, issued a statement calling on the international community to speak out about the arrests.

“We urge our Canadian government, our international allies, and journalists around the world to strongly condemn this latest crackdown on Hong Kong press freedom and work closely together to expedite the release of all arrested journalists in Hong Kong,” it reads. “We also urge our Canadian government to provide consular protection to Denise Ho.”

Others say the arrests show the so-called “one country, two systems” policy meant to grant freedom and democratic rights to Hong Kong has failed and that Canada must stop adhering to it.

Ho is a pop star and democracy activist who was born in Hong Kong but partially grew up in Montreal. In the past, she has testified at the UN’s Human Rights Council about abuses in Hong Kong and is also an activist for LGBTQ rights. The 44-year-old has been banned from mainland China for protesting human rights abuses.

Police raided the offices of digital pro-democracy outlet Stand News on Wednesday. Ho, a former board member, was arrested earlier in the day, along with six other current or former editors and board members.

The arrests were made under a crime ordinance dating back to the city’s time as a British colony, The Associated Press reported.

China introduced a national security law for Hong Kong in 2020, with opponents warning it would be used to suppress free speech and media in the region. At the time, opponents said they feared the law was just the start of a campaign of oppression against free speech in Hong Kong. Many said the law breached the treaty under which the region was handed over to China in 1997, which stipulated civil rights were to remain untouched for 50 years.

Ho and others arrested are charged with conspiracy to put out a seditious publication. She faces fines and up to two years in prison.

Stand News was one of the last publications critical of the government after the famed Apple Daily closed after its publisher and editors were arrested last year. Stand News suspended subscriptions earlier this year and took down many opinion pieces from its website over national security law concerns.

The latest arrests also follow the tearing down of memorials to victims of the Tiananmen Square Massacre in Hong Kong last week.

In Canada, Conservative Sen. Leo Housakos said Ho’s arrest, once again, demonstrates Canadians are not safe in China and said he wrote a letter to the government urging it to institute a full boycott of the upcoming Beijing Olympics out of concern for athlete safety.

“Canadians are not safe at the hands of the communist thugs,” Housakos told the Star. “There needs to be immediate action taken. The Canadian government at some point needs to put their foot down and take their head out of the sand and stop pretending its business as usual with Beijing.”

He said Ottawa also needs to issue a travel advisory warning Canadians of the danger of travelling to China. About 300,000 Canadians are estimated to live in Hong Kong.

Housakos said Ottawa must rethink its approach to the relationship with China and stop adhering to the one country, two systems policy. Such a turn might mean Hong Kong would not enjoy the privileges granted by Canada, such as residents not requiring a visa to visit.

In Vancouver, Thekla Lit of the Chinese Canadian Concern Group on Chinese Communist Party’s Violations Against Human Rights, which also signed the 18-group statement, said the arrests constituted a “death threat” against other media in the city.

“It really signifies that freedom of the press is being stripped off almost completely,” Lit said. “These attacks might be extended to foreign journalists.”

She said the ongoing suppression of media means the Chinese Communist Party can do whatever it wants.

Wednesday afternoon, Global Affairs Canada said consular officials are “engaged and stand ready to provide assistance on the ground.”

Spokesperson Jason Kung said Canada is concerned about the arrests and will speak out against such actions along with international allies.

Ho’s arrest comes months after Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were released after nearly three years in jail on espionage charges in what many observers said was direct retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou.

Meng was arrested in December 2018 at Vancouver’s airport on a request from the United States, where she was wanted on fraud charges. She signed a deferred prosecution agreement and was released in September, Kovrig and Spavor were released the same day.

This latest arrest of a Canadian in Hong Kong, while “deplorable,” isn’t the same situation, said former Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques.

“The case of the Michaels was clearly in retaliation for the arrest of a Chinese citizen that (Chinese Chairman) Xi Jinping thought was important,” Saint-Jacques said. “(Ho) has been caught in this huge effort now to annihilate all form of opposition in Hong Kong. All critical voices.”

He, too, said Canada will have to reconsider its adherence to one country, two systems. He said authorities in Hong Kong are sending the message it will be run via “rule by law” instead of “rule of law,” which throws the status of the region into question.

CORRECTION — Dec. 29, 2021 — An earlier version of this article misstated the year the national security law was introduced and the duration of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig’s captivity. The story has been updated.

With files from The Associated Press

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