As the federal election campaign reached its mid-point, Jane Li and several other B.C. student activists finished sending out hundreds of letters to candidates across the country, asking for their position on the political unrest in Hong Kong.
The students wanted to know if the candidates are committed to protecting thousands of Canadians living in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.
As of Tuesday morning, with less than a week before the Oct. 21 election, more than 1,500 letters had been sent out through e-mails. The group has so far received only about 45 replies from candidates, including long-time Liberal Hedy Fry, running again in Vancouver Centre; Conservative Ed Fast, running in Abbotsford, B.C.; and NDP candidate Brian Chang of Toronto Centre. All have voiced support for the protesters.
The students have not heard back from either the Liberal or Conservative candidate running in Richmond Centre, the riding with the highest population in British Columbia of residents with Chinese descent.
While the Conservative, Liberal and NDP leaders have spent the campaign debating issues such as taxation, spending and climate change, the situation in Hong Kong has been top of mind for many voters in Richmond Centre.
But Conservative incumbent Alice Wong, who is originally from Hong Kong, and Liberal candidate Steven Kou, an immigrant from mainland China, have been reluctant to discuss their positions.
Their reticence reflects the reality among Chinese-Canadians: Often-violent protests in Honk Kong have sown deep division in their communities. As with Ms. Li, most Canadians with ties to the Chinese city are in support of the months-long protests, whereas the majority of immigrants from mainland China strongly denounce the violence in the anti-government movement and have stood up for the Hong Kong police and government.
Neither Ms. Wong nor Mr. Kou would speak to The Globe and Mail about the issue, which is a frustration for Ms. Li.
“This isn’t a behaviour that an MP candidate should have. They should advocate for the platform that they stand for and also the needs of their riding. If they’re trying to appease either side, it’s just not really ethical,” she said.
Ms. Wong, who moved to Canada from Hong Kong in 1980, eked out a slim victory in the 2015 election, beating her rival, then-Liberal candidate Lawrence Woo, by less than three percentage points. Her team declined repeated requests for an interview.
Mr. Kou’s campaign team also turned down interview requests, and when Mr. Kou met a Globe and Mail reporter in Richmond after an event, he hurried to his car saying he couldn’t spare any time to talk.
In a statement sent later, Mr. Kou’s campaign manager, Sager Joubble, said his candidate’s position on this issue is that Canada will always stand up for freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
“We are monitoring developments in Hong Kong very closely and are mindful of the 300,000 Canadian citizens who are there. Alongside international partners, we have emphasized the need to exercise restraint and reject violence – and for the need to engage in dialogue and respect fundamental freedoms, including the right to peaceful assembly,” Mr. Joubble wrote in an e-mail exchange.
According to the 2016 census data, about 60 per cent of the population in Richmond Centre is of Chinese descent. In this riding of 97,620, 24 per cent of the residents’ mother tongue is Mandarin while 23 per cent are native Cantonese speakers.
Along the arterial No. 3 Road in Richmond Centre, Chinese signs are almost as prevalent as those in English; Asian stores, restaurants and bubble-tea bars can be found almost everywhere.
Françoise Raunet, Green Party candidate for Richmond Centre, acknowledged that the political crisis in Hong Kong is one of the key issues in her constituency.
“I think it's definitely on a lot of people’s mind. And I do think that people are going vote around it,” she said in an interview.
Ms. Raunet has been public in her support for Hong Kongers who are protesting for greater democracy. She added that she is aware that such a stand could cost her some votes.
Zhang Zhe, an independent candidate in Richmond Centre, said that during his canvassing, most of the riding’s constituents were in favour of the protests.
“On this issue, I hold different points of view,” Mr. Zhang said, adding that he supports Hong Kong police and the Hong Kong government.
He received opposition and criticism after being vocal on the political turmoil.
“Often, I am labelled as pro-China, but [people] do not know that I am not a spokesperson for the Chinese Communist Party. I am looking at and solving these issues with perspectives of liberalism and cultural integration,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Ms. Raunet said while the situation in Hong Kong seems present on many voters’ minds here, not all want it to become an election issue.
“There’s a lot of people don’t want to bring the problems here to Canada,” she said. “They would be more comfortable with letting it stay in Hong Kong, China, not bringing it to Richmond.”
But Ms. Li disagrees. She stressed that Canada, a democratic country that focuses on human rights, has a “moral obligation” to speak up for the Asian financial hub.
“Hong Kong issues right now are also Canadian issues,” she said.
“We see all this violence that, whether it’d be from the police’s side or the protesters’ side, we are concerned about Canadians living in Hong Kong. Any one of them can easily be hurt."
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of student activist Jane Li.