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Why it matters to Canada what happens in Hong Kong

Why it matters to Canada what happens in Hong Kong

The protests in Hong Kong directly impact the Chinese-Canadian community, highlighting divisions rooted in identity, generational, linguistic and political differences.

Just the Basics

  • As Asia’s most Canadian city, events unfolding in Hong Kong are top of mind for hundreds of thousands of Canadians, both in the city and Canada

  • Tensions in Hong Kong are mirrored in the strained ties among supporters and opponents of the protests in both individual families and between mainland and Hong Kong Chinese

  • The solidification of a separate Hong Kong identity in the two decades after the 1997 handover plays an important role in fuelling the protests

The cacophony of paving stones hitting riot shields and volleys of tear gas have become common sounds in Hong Kong in recent weeks, as anti-government protests in the city show no signs of abating. Over seven hundred people have been arrested since June, and Chinese paramilitary forces are amassing on the border. Canadian Jesse Lam described the situation as “like a war movie” to CTV News, after being tear gassed on the way to work. “Five seconds later, my eyes just started watering and feeling pain. You can’t open your eyes. You just heard a lot of deafening screaming. It was a truly terrifying experience.”

One man from Toronto who took part in the protests in Hong Kong, shared similar sentiments while asking to remain anonymous during his interview with CBC News. “I tried to stay away from police as much as possible, at least 100 metres away, because I was afraid. A lot [of] times, I think [the police] they’re hurting people on purpose. The man also remarked that his relatives said he was lucky to have Canadian citizenship; many of his friends were also asking about how to apply for immigration to Canada.

The up-swell of popular anger was sparked by efforts to introduce extradition legislation which would allow perpetrators accused of committing crimes in Hong Kong tried in mainland China. This is a prospect that many in Hong Kong fear would put them at the mercy of a judicial system controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and further solidify Beijing’s hold over the special administrative region. As China’s power and confidence continue to grow, Beijing has been retreating from promises made to the United Kingdom prior to the 1997 handover regarding Hong Kong’s political freedoms.

“At the end of the day, I can’t get away from the fact that Hong Kong is my birthplace. I spent 16 years growing up there. What happens there is still of great importance to me.”
— Vancouver resident Simon Tse, 23

This state of uncertainty is of particular interest to Canada, as around 300,000 Canadians call Hong Kong home, making the metropolis the most Canadian city in Asia. The multitude of Canadians in Hong Kong together with those Hong Kong Canadians in Canada, makes what happens in Hong Kong of vital importance to a large number of Canadians. It is also of interest to note that emigration from Hong Kong to Canada has closely mirrored tensions in Hong Kong. During the uncertain years and months leading up to Hong Kong’s handover to China, Hong Kong became the largest source of immigrants to Canada, with 131,000 arriving between 1986 and 1995. After a peak of 47,271 in 1994, the wave of new immigrants (not including returnees) to Canada from Hong Kong dried to a trickle, averaging just 471 per year between 2000-2012.

The latest batch of unrest in Hong Kong is likely to cause another such increase. Many returnees are what are known as ‘double reverse migrants - namely individuals that immigrated to Canada before returning to Hong Kong and are now returning a second time. Some 8,000 double reverse immigrants and their children returned to Canada between 2011-2016, the first increase in Canada’s Hong Kong-born population since 1996, as hundreds of thousands left the country after 1998. When the worst fears of many Hong Kong immigrants were not realized following the handover to Beijing, many choose to move back to Hong Kong, but there has been an increase in immigration to Canada in recent years following the 2014 Umbrella Movement protest movement and unrest in 2016.

Number of Hong Kong residents moving to Canada

Includes both Canadian citizens and new immigrants | Source: STATISTICS CANADA

Speaking to the CBC, Hong Kong resident and Canadian Edward Chan explained that “definitely, there are more and more Canadians that are considering [...] going back to Canada if the Hong Kong situation [continues] to get worse. I think the biggest concern right now is [that] we’re not too certain about what is going to happen, how the Hong Kong government is going to deal with the situation.” One double returnee is Jenny Liu, who initially came to Canada in the early 1990s and left as a teenager in 1998, only to eventually come back in 2015. She says she feels sad for her relatives that don’t have foreign passports and thus no option to leave. Liu explains she demonstrated at the Chinese consulate in Vancouver, and cites the selection of Leung Chun-ying as Hong Kong’s chief executive (a conservative figure loathed by many Hong Kong liberals) in 2012 as the main reason for her return to Canada: “at that moment, I planned to move back [to Canada] within two or three years,” explains Liu.

Fears about the future and dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong government are key drivers for immigration to Canada, yet as UBC researcher Kennedy Chi-pan Wong notes, “[many] leave Hong Kong not just because they are against China or they don’t like the Communist Party, but because they don’t want the political struggle practically impacting their daily lives.” Support for the protests is also divided along generational lines, with more young Hong Kong Canadians in favour of the movement, with parents and grandparents tending to be hesitant. The creators of the so-called Lennon Wall (after Beatles member John Lennon) - a project voicing support for the Hong Kong protests - erected outside Union Station in Toronto directly referenced this wave of intra-familial strife. Mimi Lee and Kenny Lu remarked to CTV that “it’s division that we have never seen between friends and families, which is outrageous.”

After participating in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Sara Chan and her family moved to Canada in 2014, and the current unrest in Hong Kong is reopening the same kind of familial division Chan witnessed back in 2014. Now living in Canada, the Chan family continues to be wracked by internal division, with Chan remarking that her grandfather even handed around a form declaring support for the Hong Kong government at the dinner table and instructed the family to sign: Chan and her cousins refused. Touching on this generational split, UBC social work professor Miu Chung Yan explains that “most parents are not in agreement [with the protests], not because they’re pro-government. Many of them are just too concerned [their children] will go out on the streets [protesting].” 

Many Hong Kong Canadians feel caught in the middle, between their place here in Canada, their older relatives and their connections to Hong Kong. Of growing importance is also the solidification of a distinct Hong Kong identity versus the Chinese mainland; a sub-ethnic identity complicating the big tent term ‘Chinese-Canadian’. In this regard, Simon Tse, 29 typifies this dilemma. The son of Canadians living in Hong Kong Tse came to Canada as a teenager in 2006. Speaking on the question of Hong Kong identity, Tse notes a common response those identifying as Hong Kong Canadian hear, namely “we’re all living in Canada now right? But for my own identity, I still insist that I be called a Hong Kong Canadian rather than a Chinese-Canadian. At the end of the day, I can’t get away from the fact that Hong Kong is my birthplace. I spent 16 years growing up there. What happens there is still of great importance to me.”

Tse says that among his Canadian-born friends in Vancouver, those of French-Canadian heritage understand his position the best, as French-Canadians have long had to reconcile their sub-ethnic identities as French-Canadians and their larger place in predominantly anglophone Canada.

This issue of identity is important because the growth of a Hong Kong identity separate from mainland China in many ways underpins the protests which are currently rocking the city. Surveys have shown a steep decrease in the number of Hong Kong residents who identify solely as Chinese, from 32.1 percent in 1997 to just 8.9% in 2014. While under British colonial rule, the ‘Chineseness’ of Hong Kong residents was emphasized in comparison to European residents and administrators. Following the 1997 handover, Hong Kong residents began to contrast themselves to the rapidly growing economic and political clout of mainland China, a trend further entrenched by the differences inherent in the One Country, Two Systems paradigm adopted in 1997.

A similar trend can be seen in language use in Hong Kong, as Cantonese has continued to squeeze out Mandarin and other Chinese dialects. In 1961, 78.9 percent of Hong Kong residents were native Cantonese speakers, with 21.1 percent speaking Mandarin, other Chinese dialects or English. Figures from 2016 show that the percentage of Cantonese native speakers has increased to 88.9 percent, while other Chinese dialects make up only five percent - of which Mandarin constitutes just 1.9 percent. 

Conversely, in Canada the once dominant Hong Kong Chinese community is giving way under the influx of mainland immigrants, who in turn are altering the composition of the Chinese-Canadian community. “They speak a different language, they come from a different background. There became more and more [a] need to differentiate us from them,” explains Yan. While usually lumped together as ‘Chinese-Canadians’ by Canadian society at large, this was less of an issue when (with the exception of the small Taiwanese community) to be Chinese-Canadian was essentially to be a Cantonese speaker, most likely from Hong Kong. Consequently, the push to self-identify as Hong Kong Canadian was muted until the influx of mainland Chinese immigrants, and the animosity this demographic transition engendered.

Research by UBC researchers Miu Chung Yan, Karen Lok Yi Wong and Daniel Lai has shown that there is little mixing between Hong Kong and mainland Chinese peoples, as “the influence of transnational politics on interpersonal interactions at the individual level cannot be underestimated [...] Avoidance is a major strategy.” The researchers note that political conversations between sub-ethnic groups in the Chinese-Canadian community are essentially taboo. Vancouver community leader Jun Ing of the Chinese Benevolent Association, says the Chinese community in the city is experiencing the same kind of tension as in Hong Kong, with regards to both the protests and questions of sub-ethnic identity.

In many cases (but by no means all) there is greater scepticism of Beijing and the Chinese Communist Party among Hong Kong Canadians compared to Chinese-Canadians from the mainland. Even if many mainland Chinese living in Canada are not staunch supporters of Beijing, the perception that they do hold such views, both among Hong Kong Canadians and the Canadian public in general only serves to ratchet up communal tensions.

On August 17th and 18th, two protest groups of around 400 people each clashed in Vancouver, with those supporting the protesters facing off against those backing the Hong Kong government and security forces. Nicholas Wang, a mainlander and organizer of the pro-police One China group, explains that “our idea is just against violence, that’s the most important thing.” Wang acknowledged that the pro-protests group which squared off against individuals like himself are also concerned about the violence. “It’s perfect that [the pro-protests group] support the same idea with us [but] I think you can find more videos of more young people creating chaos [in Hong Kong] instead of police doing that.” Similarly, Chinese exchange student Erika Zhao says foreign media coverage is only focusing on the actions of the police, presenting a biased picture of the violence committed by both sides.

It would be remiss to say that support for the protests is neatly divided along Hong Kong / Mainland lines, as seen by the stance adopted by individuals such as Calvin Lam, 23 who was born in Vancouver and raised in Hong Kong. Lam explains that he supported the protests until Carrie Lam (no relation) announced the suspension of the extradition bill. Lam feels that in getting the government to back down on the bill, the protesters achieved their goal, and views the rest of their demands as unrealistic and ultimately counter-productive.

A further stand-off also occurred in Vancouver after a prayer meeting organized by pro-protester activists was surrounded by a pro-government crowd after both groups had attended an earlier rally. Prayer meeting organizers felt threatened and called the police to escort them from the building. Similarly, a pro-protesters march in Toronto was prevented due to a clash with counter-demonstrators. Several hundred supporters of the protesters sought to march around the Eaton Centre in Toronto, yet were confronted by a pro-government group. Speaking about the incident, march organizer Gloria Fung told CTV that “[the counter-protesters] don’t have a permit to stage this rally here. They are only here to jeopardize our freedom of expression. In Canada, we show zero tolerance to this kind of intimidation and harassment.” 

There are fears that the protests will damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a global economic hub

Furthermore, over two hundred Chinese-Canadian groups voiced their support for the Hong Kong government in an open letter in Chinese language newspapers in Vancouver and Toronto. While some of these groups may be genuine, observers say they are seeing evidence of Beijing’s influence campaign. Cheok Kwan, of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, argues that “these are basically fake organizations [...] They are what I call the mouthpieces of the Chinese consulate. This is very clearly [a] United Front effort by the Chinese government [...] If it’s not instituted directly, then indirectly.” Kwan is referring to the United Front Work Department, an official CCP offshoot designed to influence the ethnic Chinese diaspora as well as foreign political and economic elites.

Speaking to the National Post, Fenella Sung - spokesperson for Vancouver’s Friends of Hong Kong - notes that the open letter shows the hallmarks of a United Front effort, with the linguistic craftiness and appeals to ethnic nationalism typical to such campaigns. “[There is] not a word about being Canadians, as if they have nothing to do with Canada. The text of the ad could be used anywhere in the world,” explains Sung.

Reaction from Ottawa

Criticism of the violence employed by both sides is not confined to pro-government Chinese, as the UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet was condemned all acts of violence in Hong Kong, calling on protesters to express their discontent peacefully. At the same Bachelet has stated that there is “credible evidence” that Hong Kong security forces are using measures which run counter to international norms and standards.

The concerns of the United Nations are mirrored by those expressed by the Canadian government, with Ottawa issuing a joint statement with the European Union calling for dialogue and voicing support for the rights of Hong Kong residents to peaceful assembly. In response, the Chinese embassy in Canada issued a statement calling on Canada to “immediately stop meddling in Hong Kong affairs and China’s internal affairs.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has stated that Ottawa is working on contingency plans to help Canadians in Hong Kong. The Canadian consulate in Hong Kong has also announced that local staff are not allowed to leave the city on official business to the mainland, following the detention of a British consulate worker. Moreover, the Canadian government has warned travellers that Chinese authorities have instituted heightened travel screening and other security measures, including demanding access to the phones of travellers to inspect for any photos or material related to the protests.

At the same time, there have been calls for Canada to do more to respond to events in Hong Kong, with MP Michael Chong - a Conservative critic of the Liberal’s Asia policy - calling Ottawa slow to react and it’s defence of human rights in Hong Kong “lukewarm”. Chong, whose father was born in Hong Kong, has compared the situation in Hong Kong to that in Lebanon in 2006, when the Canadian government spent $58 million to evacuate around 50,000 Canadians from the country during the Hezbollah-Israel war. Any similar operation in Hong Kong would be substantially more expensive given the greater distances involved as well as the higher number of potential evacuees.

Alongside Chong, former diplomat John Higginbotham has called for a more aggressive approach to Canada’s current stance on Hong Kong. Citing the current nadir in China-Canada relations, Higginbotham argues that “[...] we have nothing to lose. I think our relationship with China has reached a new low. And I think we are going to have to make some realistic adjustments to our policy towards China.” Specifically, Higginbotham is calling for the implementation of sanctions on prominent Hong Kong politicians and business people in order to express Canada’s displeasure with the current state of affairs. 

The Bottom Line

Canada’s long-standing connections to Hong Kong, which grew even deeper in the years leading up to the 1997 handover, means that events in the Chinese city are of utmost importance to hundreds of thousands of Canadians both at home and abroad. Having sought out Canada as a refuge in the run-up to the begin of CCP control, many Hong Kong Chinese returned to the city after their fears about Beijing did not materialize.

Nevertheless, China’s increasing economic and political clout has given the government more confidence, allowing it to erode Hong Kong’s special status, as the One Country, Two Systems approach ultimately represents an inconvenient compromise for Beijing. The centralization of power under President Xi Jinping and new population control measures means that unrest in Hong Kong will not be tolerated by the central government. Protestors demonstrating the controversial extradition bill have taken the city by storm, and as the unrest shows no signs of abating, there are growing fears that violence in Hong Kong will spiral out of control.

Both the Hong Kong security forces and protestors have engaged in acts of violence, further polarizing the stand-off and leading to heated emotions of both sides. This emotional atmosphere can be seen in the divisions (often along generational lines) in many Chinese-Canadian families, and between (and within) the mainland and Hong Kong Chinese communities.

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