A Vancouver woman who protested for the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou outside her extradition hearing this week says she was duped into doing so under the guise of a paid acting gig.
Julia Hackstaff, an actor, said an acquaintance in the film industry messaged her on Facebook on Sunday night about a production requiring 30 background actors for two hours the following morning. The acquaintance said the job would pay $100.
Ms. Hackstaff, 32, arrived at the address the next morning to find it was the B.C. Supreme Court. She approached a group of young people “that looked kind of lost," assuming they were the other background actors.
“One of the guys there – white, skinny guy – said, ‘What’s your name?’” Ms. Hackstaff recalled in an interview. “I told him my first name, Julia, and he checked a list on his phone and said, ‘Yup.’ He told me we were going to be given signs and we have to hold them and protest.”
The group of roughly two dozen supposed protesters immediately raised suspicions of media outside the courthouse on Monday, the first day of extradition proceedings. The group held signs bearing identical slogans: “Free Ms. Meng,” “Bring Michael home,” “Trump stop bullying us,” and “Equal justice.” The handwriting on each sign was the same. Those who held them refused to answer questions.
The repeated references to a singular “Michael” seemed detached from the fact that two Michaels – Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – were seized by Chinese authorities after Ms. Meng’s arrest in December, 2018, and have languished in detention centres since.
Ms. Hackstaff, who had brought a friend with her to what she believed was a shoot, said they had barely read the signs that they were given when a journalist began asking them questions.
“At the moment, I still thought it was an actor or someone,” she said. “I still thought, okay, maybe they want extra material from the background actors. But after two or three questions, I obviously noticed that she was a professional journalist with professional equipment, asking real questions. That’s when I totally freaked out.”
Ms. Hackstaff said it was then – roughly five minutes into the charade – that she grabbed her friend and said they needed to go: “I don’t know what this is, but it’s not what we were told.” They dropped their signs and left; Ms. Hackstaff said she did not ask for or receive her money.
She said she immediately messaged her Facebook acquaintance to find out what she had just participated in, but the acquaintance said he was told about the gig by someone else, she said.
Ms. Hackstaff, who went to theatre school in Mexico and came to Vancouver a year and a half ago on a Vancouver Film School scholarship, said it is “infuriating” that someone would take advantage of other people’s work and passions for such a deceptive purpose.
“It’s a big, big lesson for me to take care of myself and ask more questions about what I’m getting myself into,” she said, “because even if it’s something that seems fun and quick and safe, it turns out that maybe it’s not.”
She said she was only vaguely aware of the Huawei executive’s case.
“I had read a few headlines from people sharing stuff on Facebook but I hadn’t really actually read anything myself,” she said.
China Central Television, China’s main state television broadcaster, reported on Monday’s proceedings, including images of the pretend protesters. “Locals gathered outside the courthouse, calling for the release of Meng Wanzhou,” a narrator’s voice said in Mandarin.
CCTV did not immediately return a request for comment on Tuesday.
Benjamin Howes, a spokesman for Huawei, said the telecom giant had nothing to do with the stunt.
"We were not aware of it; we saw the protesters just like everybody else,” Mr. Howes said. “We saw what you guys saw at the same time. Our attention is focused on what’s happening in the courtroom.”
With a report from Xiao Xu