Hong Kong (Toronto Star) – Dark circles ring Abraham Wong’s eyes. The Vancouver realtor’s phone has been on 24 hours a day since early June, when a series of protests against Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill intensified.
In a downtown Vancouver office Thursday, Wong’s phone continually buzzed with messages from protesters on the ground in Hong Kong. He is texting and talking to people as young as 14, answering questions about everything from how to immigrate to Canada to how overseas audiences perceive the police crackdowns on protesters.
The 32-year-old businessman, who has both Canadian and Hong Kong citizenship, said he is one of hundreds of Canadian-based supporters of the pro-democracy movement that has spilled onto the streets of the former British colony.
Protests have become part of life for Hong Kongers, ever since it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement, which requires Beijing to respect the autonomy of its rule-of-law legal system for 50 years.
Tens of thousands of people from Hong Kong immigrated to Canada in the years surrounding what is known as the 1997 “handover,” but many remain engaged in the city’s struggles.
Wong is the public face of the Canadian supporters, who are part of an informal, international network that has expanded in recent weeks to help Hong Kongers who are protesting the extradition bill.
The unnamed network provides free legal information, public outreach to raise awareness and media relations for protesters, including some who broke into and vandalized the Hong Kong legislature on July 1 and now fear they will be arrested by police.
“If protesters seek asylum in our countries, we are prepared to do whatever we can do to help them settle safely,” says Wong, who was born in Hong Kong and participated in pro-democracy protests before he immigrated to Canada in 2003.
“We would help them find accommodation, find jobs or enrol in school. We have volunteer translators ready to help.”
One by one, organizers such as Wong introduce trusted people into the network. Members now include people from Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Germany and Tokyo. Most have Hong Kong roots, since they are motivated partly out of concern for relatives and friends living in the city.
The groups are careful not to expose the identities of the protesters they are trying to help and use encrypted apps to communicate with people in Hong Kong, Asia’s most Canadian city.
An estimated 300,000 Canadian citizens call Hong Kong home, while more than 200,000 immigrants from Hong Kong live in Canada, according to the 2016 Census. Hong Kongers have a soft spot for Canada, ever since close to 2,000 Canadians bolstered British forces to fight the Japanese at the beginning of the Second World War. Many were captured and kept as prisoners of war until they were liberated in 1945; almost a quarter did not make it home again, according to Veterans Affairs Canada.
Canadians are once again stepping into the fray, this time armed only with cellphones and apps, aiding the fight for what some describe as the soul of Hong Kong.
They include the network of supporters back home, but also Canadians on the ground in Hong Kong, a city on the southern tip of mainland China. The downtown financial district is just a one-hour train ride away from the closest mainland city of Shenzhen.
At the heart of the latest uprisings is a fear of greater Chinese government control over Hong Kong and the erosion of civil liberties, spurred by the prospect of amendments to its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance. The amendments would have made it easier to send suspected criminals to mainland China to face trial in courts controlled by the Communist Party.
“Hong Kongers have seen their rights and core values come under attack: freedom, justice and democracy,” Wong wrote in a June 13 editorial for the Star about the extradition bill.
He feared that, by speaking out publicly against the bill, he could be arrested and sent to mainland China the next time he stepped foot in Hong Kong or even had a stopover at the airport.
The protests, which started in April when Hong Kongers first heard of the amendments, continued after the city government suspended the approval process on June 15 but did not formally axe the bill.
On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty from British rule, a group of young protesters broke into the legislature building and destroyed furniture, defaced portraits and sprayed protest graffiti all over the walls of the legislature that read: “Hong Kong is not China, not yet” and “The government forced us to revolt.”
In Hong Kong four days later, pro-democracy lawmaker Claudia Mo described how she tried to stop a young man from storming the legislature, where she holds one of 70 seats as an independent with no party affiliation.
“He reminded me of my son, a rugby player,” Mo, a graduate of Ottawa’s Carleton University, said in a July 5 interview at a coffee shop while the legislature was closed for repairs. “He was vowing to storm in and I approached him, saying, ‘Hey look, think twice, the rioting charge could cost you 10 years behind bars. It’s just not worth it.’ He put his arm around my shoulders and seemed to appreciate the concern, but told me to get out of the way … they would die for this fight.”
The day before, pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip, chairperson of the New People’s Party, and a backer of the extradition bill, said in an interview that she was interested in how the leaderless protesters were so well organized and noted that solidarity marches have happened around the world against the extradition bill.
She said she had no hard evidence that foreign governments had “interfered” in the Hong Kong protests, but noted interference and influence are two different things.
“Naturally, foreign influence is pervasive. Influence is not the same as direct interference,” Ip said in a July 4 interview at her office in Wanchai, in central Hong Kong.
“There are behind-the-scenes organizers no doubt, but it’s not for me to point fingers … The (Hong Kong) government should be proactive in investigating.”
Ip said politicians should focus on economic policies to fight poverty, which she said was the underlying reason for public resentment against the influence of mainland China.
Beijing’s state media has focused on the idea of foreign influence in the protests, where it’s not clear whether “foreigners” include the Hong Kong diaspora. In a June 9 editorial, the China Daily wrote that “some Hong Kong residents have been hoodwinked by the opposition camp and their foreign allies into supporting the anti-extradition campaign.”
An active Hong Kong protester, who did not give her name for fear she would be arrested, said her Canadian passport gave her the courage to engage in peaceful political resistance. She organized a volunteer first aid response team, which attends each protest to help people suffering from heatstroke, tear gas and altercations with police.
“My family was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution in mainland China (from 1966-1976), so they really valued the protection of a foreign passport. My mother travelled to Montreal twice to give birth to my brother and me.”
The protester, who was interviewed in a Hong Kong church July 5, is in communication with the informal network of supporters from Canada. She is aware that people like Ip accuse protesters of actively seeking foreign support for the protests, and although they do want foreign governments to acknowledge their fight for democratic rights, she said governments have no direct role in funding or organizing the pro-democracy movement.
In addition to withdrawing the extradition bill, some protesters are also calling for the right to directly vote in elections, the release of protesters who have been arrested and an independent investigation into the police, particularly in relation to the June 12 protests where police fired rubber bullets on the crowd.
As further evidence of why Beijing can’t be trusted and the people of Hong Kong need democracy to hold their local government accountable, activists like Wong cite the cases of detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor and the internment in “re-education” camps of over a million Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang.
Protesters have openly appealed for support from people and governments around the world. Last month, a crowdfunding campaign by the anonymous “Freedom Hongkonger” group of protesters raised more than $800,000 to take out front-page ads in prominent newspapers urging readers in the U.S., U.K., France, Germany, Switzerland and Japan to pressure G20 leaders, who met in Japan in late June, to act against the extradition bill and support democracy in Hong Kong. Chinese President Xi Jinping attended the meetings in Osaka, while Hong Kong finance chief Paul Chan was part of the Chinese delegation.
The Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement has organized two rallies outside the Chinese consulate on Granville St. in support of Hong Kong protests, and the group is also in touch with protesters in Hong Kong to offer its support.
“People in Canada are very connected to protesters in Hong Kong. We are having meetings to consider our next steps,” said Mabel Tung, the society’s chairperson, although she wouldn’t provide any details.
Joshua Wong, a prominent Hong Kong activist who has served time in prison for his leading role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests called the Umbrella Movement, said people around the world should care about what’s happening in Hong Kong, even if it’s out of self interest.
“The extradition bill could affect foreign citizens to be extradited to face trial. It’s not appropriate for any government to allow extradition of their people from Hong Kong to China,” Wong said in a July 5 telephone interview in Hong Kong.
“It’s a good move for Canada, and the U.S. and the U.K to speak out. I hope more countries will do the same.”
“We are asking for the government to listen to the voice of people,”
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, speaking to reporters by teleconference Thursday from London, said the extradition bill issue is a “special concern for Canada because of the 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong. We have a duty of care towards them and we take that very seriously.”
Canada has issued two public statements expressing its concern that the bill could harm the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong, including one issued jointly with U.K. foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt on May 30 that highlighted possible effects “on business confidence and on Hong Kong’s international reputation.”
But whether Canada will give refugee status to pro-democracy activists from Hong Kong is unclear. Last year, Hong Kong protesters Ray Wong, 25, and Alan Li, 27, were granted refugee status in Germany.
When Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada was asked whether any Hong Kong protesters have sought asylum in Canada, a spokesperson said they could neither confirm or deny it “for reasons of privacy.”
Jean-Nicolas Beuze, the Canada representative for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, said the UNHCR cannot play a role in advising Hong Kong protesters whether or not to seek asylum in Canada and Canadian authorities would have to assess any claims.
Back in Hong Kong, the protests continued after Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said Monday the extradition bill was “dead” because she did not formally withdraw it. Protesters are organizing another march on Sunday in Shatin, one of Hong Kong’s 18 districts, which is north of Kowloon.
Last Sunday, protesters poured into the streets of Kowloon, a district popular with tourists who come there from mainland China to shop. Chanting “Democracy for Hong Kong,” “Carrie Lam resign,” and “Love your country, come protest,” they moved through the streets in unison, using hand signals to motion to the back of the crowd when it was time to stop for a red light and when it was OK to cross an intersection. They stopped outside malls to wave at mainland Chinese tourists inside, encouraging them to come out and join them.
A woman from China’s Guangdong province, watching the procession with a look of wonder, asked what the protests were about. When she learned that Hong Kongers were opposing the extradition bill because they don’t trust China’s legal system, she only nodded.
Wearing black and hoisting yellow umbrellas to symbolize their hope for democracy, the crowd surged down the streets, singing with deliberate irony the national anthem of the People’s Republic of China called the “March of the Volunteers.”
“Arise, we who refuse to be slaves!
With our flesh and blood,
Let us build our new Great Wall!
The peoples of China are at their most critical time,
Everyone must roar in defiance.
Arise! Arise! Arise!”