When a Canadian may not be a Canadian

Justin Trudeau demands that anyone who holds a Canadian passport – even Hong Kong-born Canadian citizens who have entered on a home-return permit – should have the usual rights of consular protection and access in China. But China’s case against that is actually very strong.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 August, 2016, 1:14am
UPDATED : Saturday, 27 August, 2016, 1:14am

When Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau launches his high-stakes visit to China next week, among the many thorny issues confronting the two nations is one that directly affects Hong Kong people – more specifically 300,000 of them.

These are Hong Kong-born citizens of Canada. The controversy arises over conflicting interpretations of their legal and nationality status when they enter the mainland.

Trudeau has famously said: “A Canadian is a Canadian is a Canadian.” In other words, he demands that anyone who holds a Canadian passport and detained on the mainland should have the usual rights of consular protection and access.

China’s position is also clear and has been consistent over the years. If you enter its borders on a China-issued travel document such as a home-return permit, you are considered a Chinese national regardless of what passport you hold. Trudeau’s statement makes good rhetoric but China’s case is actually very strong.

Canada guarantees full consular services for dual national Hongkongers travelling in mainland China

Suppose a Hong Kong permanent resident enters Canada or the US using his Canadian or American passport. He is subsequently detained on a criminal charge. He may pull out his Hong Kong identity card or SAR passport and demand Chinese consular protection. But as far as Canadian or American authorities are concerned, he is one of their nationals fully subject to their respective nation’s laws, so he may well be denied Chinese consular help.

Now, Beijing seems to have made it increasingly difficult for Hong Kong residents to enter China using foreign passports. You will, for example, have to fly back to Canada, the US or Australia to apply for a visa through a Chinese consulate there. As a result, most such Hong Kong people will opt for a home-return permit; and that’s the rub. But then, a country has every right to make its visa application easy or not; convenient or otherwise.

Like Canada, China also recognises citizenship by parentage. That’s how my two children became Canadians even though they were born in Hong Kong in the early 2000s. But suppose they were born in Canada; would they still be considered Chinese nationals in Beijing’s eyes?

That was the fear when two Canadian-born children of Hong Kong parents were denied a 10-year visa to visit China through a consulate in Canada. But that turned out to be baseless, as their subsequent visa application was approved.