Support journalism that lights the way through the climate crisis

Goal: $100k

It would be a mistake to label pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong as terrorists, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Wednesday as her government issued a pointed warning to Canadians about travelling to the semi-independent Chinese territory.

As Freeland spoke, some level of calm had descended on Hong Kong as demonstrators regrouped after shutting down the city's airport for two straight days. The protesters want democratic reforms amid fears China is reneging on freedoms promised to Hong Kong in 1997 when mainland China took control of the city after decades of British rule.

The demonstrations began in the spring after the Hong Kong government introduced legislation that would allow Hong Kong residents who are arrested to be sent to China for trial.

After 10 straight weeks of protests and violent clashes with police, and with the Chinese military amassing near the Hong Kong border, Canada issued a travel warning Wednesday morning, telling Canadians to "exercise a high degree of caution in Hong Kong due to ongoing large-scale demonstrations."

"This is a turbulent moment in the world," Freeland told a news conference in Toronto, where she met with German's foreign minister Heiko Maas.

"I would urge all Canadians, if you live in Hong Kong, if you are travelling there, if you have relatives who are there or are travelling there, to look at our travel advice."

There are 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong. Freeland said they should contact the Canadian consulate if they need help.

At least 20 other countries have issued similar advisories. Many of those countries are also urging both sides in the dispute to find a way to come to a peaceful conclusion. French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Wednesday all sides must restart talks to end the violence and bring "a peaceful outcome" to the crisis.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin that "everything must be done to prevent violence and to find possibilities for a solution within the framework of dialogue."

In Toronto, Maas said Germany was "monitoring the situation with concern."

"We don't want violence by people demonstrating but we think that they exercise their legitimate rights, that they have a right of expression," she said. "Both sides however can make their contribution to prevent further escalation."

NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh urged the government to speak out more aggressively, citing images of police using "heavy handed tactics" against protesters.

"We're seeing some really troubling reports of human rights violations," said Singh.

The Chinese government said Tuesday the protests were beginning to show signs of terrorism. Freeland urged caution around such labels.

"I think that it is very important everywhere in the world for governments to listen carefully to the concerns of their people," she said, adding that while it may be tempting for governments to label protesters as something else when they do not agree with the message, "it is a mistake to do that."

Canada's relationship with China is fraught with tension over Canada's arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou, and China's subsequent detention of two Canadians allegedly for national security reasons.

Businessman Michael Spavor and former diplomat Michael Kovrig were detained in China in December shortly after Meng was arrested at the Vancouver airport to face possible extradition to the United States, where she faces fraud charges.

Freeland acknowledged "the dignity and the courage" of the two detained men and their families, and mentioned her one-on-one meeting with China's foreign minister Wang Yi last month in Thailand, where they discussed the Spavor and Kovrig matter as well as the extradition process for Meng.

"It was a positive step that we were able to have a direct conversation about that."

— with files from The Associated Press

Keep reading