10/04/2014 07:00 EDT | Updated 12/04/2014 05:59 EST

Canada has stake in Hong Kong democracy protests, ex-envoy says

Canada's former ambassador to China says Canada has a responsibility to speak out about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong.

"We do have a stake, and we have a responsibility to speak out. If you don't speak out there's a danger that China then assumes that it has a free hand," David Mulroney told CBC Radio's The House. 

For a week, thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators have taken to the streets in Hong Kong. They are protesting Beijing's decision to intervene in Hong Kong's first leadership election in 2017. Right now, all candidates will have to be approved by a pro-Beijing committee. The demonstrators want open nominations.

A 'discouraging chapter'

Mulroney called the situation in Hong Kong a "discouraging chapter in a process that started before Hong Kong was returned to China."

He warns that it goes against what many countries, including Canada and the United States, said they would support when Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997. That creates a dilemma when it comes to dealing with China in the future.

Mulroney said it is crucial that Canadian politicians speak publicly about the situation, but it has to be co-ordinated with Canadian diplomats to be more effective.

"The most effective way to speak publicly about the situation in Hong Kong is to think carefully about what you want to say, make sure that your diplomats are aware of that, and if possible give the Chinese a heads up in terms of what your position is and why it's that way," he said. 

Mob tries to force protesters off street

On Friday, a mob of pro-Beijing supporters clashed with the democracy demonstrators, trying to push them off the street. The incident derailed talks that had been scheduled between the government and demonstrators.

It is unclear if the mob was organized or spontaneous. Mulroney doesn't rule out that Beijing may have been involved.

"Increasingly on the mainland, for example when Beijing sought to stifle people who were troublesome like the blind human rights lawyer Chen Guangcheng, they did it not through armed police and military but through local thugs that they empowered. And unfortunately, there are triads and thugs a plenty in Hong Kong, even as lawful as Hong Kong is."

Chinese leadership

The protests and Beijing's reaction so far also give the world some insight into the new Chinese leadership that took over in March 2013.

President Xi Jinping's reaction is two-fold, according to Mulroney. On the one hand, it shows more confidence and more leadership that is less-consensus based.

But it also shows a lack of confidence. "Chinese leaders are no longer willing to see Hong Kong act as that incubator of reform and they want to intervene more directly in the system to head off anything that looks to them even remotely like responsible government," Mulroney said.

The protests and the global reaction to them might also derail the upcoming APEC meeting being to be held in Beijing this November. Mulroney said the protests and Beijing's reaction are a reminder that China can be a risky partner. 

"China has a stake in the peaceful resolution of this issue, but there's no guarantee that it will decide that APEC is more important than whatever it sees as its self-interest in Hong Kong," he said.

CBC Radio's The House airs Saturdays on CBC Radio One at 9 a.m. and on SiriusXM Ch. 169.