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Canada, Hong Kong, and Diaspora Politics

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

Policy Brief by Cooper Mendelson-Grasse. This piece is part of Kroeger Policy Review's third issue on Canada-China relations. The full issue is available here.


In 2012, a Globe and Mail article by journalists David Carment and Yiagadeesen Samy decried the rise of diaspora politics in Canada. “It’s a dangerous game,” the journalists condemn, that risks “opening up the country to exploitation by other countries looking to disrupt our internal affairs…” [1]. In the West, especially in those countries with diverse populations, diaspora politics usually refers to “diaspora-based associations [that] may lobby host countries to shape policies in favor of a homeland or to challenge a homeland-based government” [2]. A prominent example of diaspora politics in Canadian history can be found in the activities of Canada’s Sri Lankan Tamil population, the largest community in the world outside of the island nation [3]. This large population, spurred by worsening ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, formed many organizations, including the Tamil Eelam Society of Canada, which supported Tamil separatism by working to “develop a very strong relationship with the Canadian government” in order to lobby Ottawa to adopt policies beneficial to the Tamil cause [4]. Yet, until Hong Kong, Canada’s experiences with diaspora politics have always been reactive, responding to diaspora groups within, as opposed to working with diaspora groups from overseas. For the first time ever, Canada has its own diaspora it needs to protect. The following article will discuss the status of the Canadian diaspora in Hong Kong, the approaches of China and Israel towards diaspora politics, and will conclude by arguing that Canada should recognize and leverage its overseas communities.

Hong Kong

Estimated at nearly 300,000, the Canadian diaspora in Hong Kong forms one of the largest foreign communities of Canadians in the world [5]. With the worsening of conditions in Hong Kong sparked by the Chinese government’s desire to restrict the autonomy of the former British colony, the status of Canadians living in the city has worsened. This situation came to a head in late January, when a dual citizen was forced to choose between their Canadian and Chinese nationalities [6]. Though China’s Nationality law does not legally recognize dual nationality in Hong Kong [7], the weaponization of this status was called an “escalation” by Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong [8]. This arrest sparked apprehension by the Canadian government about the well-being of all 300,000 Canadians in the city, with Global Affairs Canada releasing a statement expressing its concern [9].

Yet, the situation in Hong Kong aside, the community within the city represents what the Canadian diaspora is, and can be: a large group of high-performing Canadians active in commercial and technological pursuits. It is estimated that approximately one quarter of all Canadians in Hong Kong both vote in Canadian elections and retain Canadian professional accreditation [10]. In short, the Canadian community in Hong Kong is politically active and economically influential. Canadian policy towards this and other diaspora communities must change. If Ottawa only sees its foreign communities as groups of expatriates requiring consular support, it will miss out on many emerging opportunities that can help benefit Canada economically.

Different Approaches to Diaspora Politics

For many nations with notable diasporas, engagement with these communities is usually carried out with an eye to benefiting “the homeland.” China, for example, engages in what it calls “external propaganda,” which consists of media directed towards overseas Chinese communities to curry support for Beijing while helping to stamp out political dissent [11]. For Israel, the Jewish diaspora, especially the American-Jewish community, is an area of incredible focus for Tel Aviv. At a formal level, the Inter-Ministerial Diaspora Committee handles relations between overseas communities and the Israeli government [12]. Israel’s Foreign Ministry possesses a unit focused entirely on diaspora affairs, and the construction of many Israeli consulates is heavily influenced by the presence of a local Jewish community [13]. Many other government ministries also have divisions directed specifically at diaspora engagement, including the Ministry of Tourism, the Ministry of Science, Culture, and Sports, and the Ministry of Industry, Trade, and Labor [14]. All of this outreach is aimed at encouraging immigration, investment, and philanthropic donations to Israel, strengthening the Jewish state through engagement with the diaspora [15].

Canada should act no differently, and leverage its burgeoning diaspora communities to the nation’s benefit. Current policy is aimed at supporting “Canadians abroad” rather than Canadian communities abroad [16]. Moreover, this policy is aimed only at assisting Canadians overseas, as opposed to also leveraging these communities. As previously mentioned, this is a mistake, principally because of an emerging concept known as “Diaspora Direct Investment” (DDI). DDI is defined as “direct investment from companies connected to diasporas in productive activities in the home country of such diasporas” [17]. Specifically, DDI is aimed at members of a diaspora who are “top executives” or “managers or owners of firms” [18]. Given the wealth of the Canadian community in Hong Kong, and the wealth of Canada in general, overseas communities form enticing sources of DDI and economic growth. It is essential that Canada change its approach, and utilize these diaspora populations to the benefit of all Canadians.

  1. Carment, David, and Yiagadeesen Samy. “The Dangerous Game of Diaspora Politics.” The Globe and Mail, February 10, 2012. s/article544912/.

  2. Amarasingam, Amarnath. “A History of Tamil Diaspora Politics in Canada: Organisational Dynamics and Negotiated Order, 1978-2013.” ICES Research Papers, no. 11 (November 2013): 11.

  3. Ibid, 2.

  4. Ivison, John. “John Ivison: Canadians in Hong Kong Are Pawns Caught in China's Game.” National Post, January 30, 2021. ught-in-chinas-game.

  5. Ibid.

  6. Jackson, Hannah. “As Hong Kong Cracks down on Dual Nationality, Ottawa Warns: Tell Them You’Re Canadian.” Global News, January 27, 2021.

  7. Flanagan, Ryan. “Canadian Dual Citizen Ordered to Pick One Nationality in Hong Kong Prison.” CTV News, February 3, 2021. y-in-hong-kong-prison-1.5293669.

  8. Jackson, Hannah. “As Hong Kong Cracks down on Dual Nationality, Ottawa Warns: Tell Them You’Re Canadian.” Global News, January 27, 2021.

  9. Li, Wanyee. “Why Are There so Many Canadians in Hong Kong?” Toronto Star, August 19, 2019. -in-hong-kong.html?rf.

  10. Heap, Timothy. “BEIJING’S INFLUENCE OPERATIONS TARGET CHINESE DIASPORA.” War on the Rocks, March 1, 2018.

  11. Schwartz, Raviv. “Israel and Its Diaspora: A Case-Study.” Geneva: Switzerland, October 2008.

  12. Ibid.

  13. Ibid.

  14. Ibid.

  15. Canada, Global Affairs. “Departmental Plan 2020-21.” GAC, July 30, 2020. px?lang=eng#a3.4.

  16. Rodriguez-Montemayor, Eduardo. “Diaspora Direct Investment Policy Options for Development.” Washington D.C.: United States of America, September 2012.

  17. Ibid.

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