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Opinion Divided loyalties: How the Hong Kong protests are exposing tensions among Canadians of Chinese descent

Protesters demonstrating against Hong Kong's extradition bill march to West Kowloon Express Rail Link Station in the city's tourism district on July 7, 2019.

TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Kevin Chong is the author of six books, most recently The Plague. He is a dual citizen of Canada and Hong Kong.

Watching the recent student-led protests in Hong Kong, I thought about my dad. Although he emigrated to Canada in 1977, and was Canadian enough to play host to Grey Cup parties and drink Tim Hortons, a piece of his heart remained in the former British colony that shaped his identity.

Returning to his Facebook profile, which I’ve kept hidden since he passed away five years ago, I see his political views described as “anti-commy” – anti-Communist. I was a teenager on June 4, 1989, when students campaigning for democracy were violently subdued by Chinese military forces in Beijing. My father tried getting me to attend an event in support of the students. I don’t recall the reason I gave for declining – at 13, hanging out with my dad felt equally as awkward as going to a candlelit vigil – but I remember his reaction. “I guess you see yourself as Canadian,” he said with resignation.

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This week in Hong Kong, protesters have achieved their goal of scuttling a contentious extradition bill in its legislature, which detractors consider a Trojan horse that exposes Hong Kongers to Beijing’s party-controlled legal system. (Hong Kong is currently insulated from the China’s more onerous restrictions on civil rights through a “One Country, Two Systems” policy that runs until 2047 but which nevertheless feels threatened by efforts like the extradition bill.) On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam declared the bill “dead” – although Ms. Lam’s ambiguous wording in Cantonese, and the relentlessness of the Chinese Communist Party, mean no end to the struggle.

I have little doubt Dad would be cheering on the protesters. But not all Chinese Canadians are pleased. And I’m curious about what he’d make of the diversity of opinions about these protests among the nearly 1.8 million Canadians of Chinese descent – the largest non-white population in the country – and how these fractures expose generational and subethnic tensions that are complicated by our experiences in the East and West.

For many of us, butting out, claiming we don’t have a role in the issue, might be considered an honourable attitude – if our support weren’t being courted. In June, Hong Kong activists raised more than a million dollars to post newspaper ads seeking international support for their movement. Christopher Chien, a Hong Kong-born Canadian and academic, no longer feels unwelcome weighing in on issues relating to his city of birth. “It’s interesting that there’s more of this transpacific solidarity,” he notes. “Local Hong Kong people want to make these ties. And Hong Kong diaspora are feeling more welcome.”

Demonstrators gathered in front of the Chinese consulate in Vancouver sing songs of freedom and solidarity during a protest against the Hong Kong extradition bill on June 9, 2019.

DON MACKINNON/AFP/Getty Images

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has also found (or perhaps sought) support overseas. Ads were placed in both Vancouver Chinese-language dailies that criticized the protesters as “radicals” threatening Hong Kong’s prosperity. Signed by more than 200 Chinese-Canadian groups in Vancouver, the notice was paid for by Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver (CBA).

I default to taking the side of my cousins who marched in Hong Kong. Stories of relatives tortured by Communist soldiers make up our family folklore. Indeed, immigrants from Hong Kong, especially those who came in the 1990s before the 1997 handover of the city to China, form the majority of the support for local pro-protester groups. Those with deeper ties to mainland China, either newer immigrants or those who arrived during the Cultural Revolution, are seemingly more likely to back the Beijing-controlled Hong Kong government.

“As Hong Kongers, our values are different from those of mainland China,” observes Mabel Tung, the chair of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement. “We already had freedom when we were born. We were no different from Canadians. Unlike the people from mainland China.”

This distancing from mainland Chinese evokes tensions in Vancouver, where the most recent wave of Chinese immigration has been blamed for unaffordable real estate and money laundering, and has created a sense of disenfranchisement among other populations – including Chinese from earlier waves of migration.

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Ms. Tung suggests that mistrust of the Chinese Communist Party motivates many Hong Kong Canadians in her group, which recently organized two events that, in total, united nearly 3,000 democracy supporters in Vancouver.

Rally organizer Kenneth Tung addresses an estimated crowd of 500 demonstrators outside the consulate.

DON MACKINNON/AFP/Getty Images

At one of these pro-democracy events in Vancouver, with its programming entirely in Cantonese, Leo Yu began to wonder how a younger, broader group of Asian diaspora members could support the students and their democratic aims. A conversation among friends resulted in an open letter, written with three peers and published in the Toronto Star under the byline Asian Diaspora for Hong Kong.

The letter invokes their identities as Asian “settlers” in Canada and further denounces China’s “human-rights abuses,” including the detainment of more than a million Muslims. “The Baby Boomer generation of Chinese Canadians needs to realize that young people see global issues through an intersectional lens,” explains Mr. Yu, whose parents were raised in Hong Kong.

For Hubert Yiu, the Hong Kong-born president of the Chinese Benevolent Association, the freedom and democracy extolled by Asian Diaspora for Hong Kong are Western concepts that can’t be superimposed on a Chinese issue. In the top floor of an old Chinatown walk-up hang century-old portraits of the six founders of his organization, which since 1906 has advocated for voting rights and appealed racist immigration laws. The group currently organizes Chinatown community events such as the annual spring festival.

“We cannot use Western political systems in China,” Mr. Yiu says. Among the supporters of the Hong Kong government, economic prosperity and stability are key arguments, with the city already negatively affected by the U.S.-China trade war.

Social media further inflames disagreements, confirming biases. A friend opposed to the protests sent me a Facebook-sourced clip of a protester throwing “acid bombs” at the police. Conversely, activists warn of China’s ability to create reality through their iron grip of the Chinese media.

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There are approximately 1.8 million Canadians of Chinese descent living in the country – the largest non-white population in Canada.

DON MACKINNON/AFP/Getty Images

After watching a video clip of a Hong Kong police officer attacked by “10 or 15” protesters, Mr. Yiu felt compelled to issue a statement. The CBA statement urges Chinese Canadians to come together “based on the idea of blood being thicker than water” to “[oppose] any separatist attempts by extremist groups.”

While Mr. Yiu says that his group receives no funding from Chinese government groups, Eleanor Yuen, a member of pro-democracy group Vancouver Hong Kong Forum Society, suggests that the clan associations and freemason groups that signed the letter have “very intense links to China.”

Ms. Yuen is a retired librarian at UBC’s Asian Library who emigrated from Hong Kong in 1990. While she and Mr. Yiu share a birth city, their identification with Hong Kong differs drastically. The CBA president sees himself as a Chinese-Canadian and Hong Kong as a part of China. When asked about her identity, Ms. Yuen describes herself as a “Canadian first and foremost,” but continues to label herself as a “Hong Kong-Canadian. My formative years were in Hong Kong but my values are very Canadian. And I think it’s very typical of people who came around my time.”

The notion of Hong Kong identity originates from around the time of the 1997 handover. A 2014 poll of 810 Hong Kong Chinese saw those who identified as “Hong Kongers” nearly triple the number of respondents who described themselves as “Chinese.”

This past summer, I’ve seen Hong Kong patriotism play out in the social media of my extended family. A younger cousin posted a series of images that illustrated the differences between Hong Kongers and mainlanders. One image shows a man bowing in front of a Chinese Communist official. Under it a caption that reads: “Chinese love to be enslaved and manipulated by the Chinese Communist Party.” By contrast, the image of the communist official standing next to a figure raising their middle finger bears a caption suggesting that Hong Kongers are a threat to the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party.

Protesters march during a rally in Hong Kong on July 7, 2019.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

“The rush to be starkly xenophobic and nativist – that feels part of the youth culture [in Hong Kong],” observes Christopher Chien, whose doctoral thesis at the University of Southern California concerns Hong Kong’s Cold War relationship with the United States.

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While Mr. Chien is supportive of the protest movement as a whole, he’s troubled by the “scattershot” way in which student protesters solicited the support from Donald Trump for outside intervention and what he sees as a “middle-class Han” – the predominant Chinese ethnic group – ”movement.” He uses the example of the Vietnamese refugee crisis in the 1980s – when refugees were detained in prison camps until they could be repatriated – as an example of how abuse of ethnic minorities has been overlooked.

“I’ve seen stories about the ‘police state’ – people’s bags being searched,” Mr. Chien adds. “Ethnic minorities, queers, poor people have been stopped and asked for ID for decades. Many Hong Kong people are only aligned against the police now because they are being included in the brutality.”

In contrast to Mr. Yiu’s critique of the protesters, Mr. Chien’s take on the protests is informed by principles of social justice. Like Mr. Chien, a Canadian-born friend of mine living in Hong Kong says that this activism fails to address more urgent issues: That Hong Kong is a place of great inequality, and that people should push for higher minimum wage, public housing, and residency for migrant workers. My friend is also wary of the naiveté of protesters, many of them born after the handover, who nostalgically invoke Hong Kong’s past by waving the Union Jack under the mistaken belief that colonial rule was more democratic.

As a Hong Kong-born Canadian, navigating issues of affordability and inequality in Vancouver, I can’t escape viewing this situation with my Western lens. But after some thought, I think, is that really wrong? I know enough about Hong Kong to realize that a dual perspective, in a city with 300,000 residents who hold Canadian passports, is not unusual.

The colonial flag of Hong Kong flies over a march of protesters demonstrating against the city's extradition bill on July 7, 2019.

THOMAS PETER/Reuters

“Immigration is not just a migration of people,” Eleanor Yuen says, “it’s a migration of ideas. When people choose to immigrate to Canada, their mentality has been changed because of their Canadian experience.”

In my daily life, I like to think that my own emotional reserve stems in part from my cultural heritage. I resist complaining in order to to preserve group harmony. When I suggest that Confucian attitudes might result in pro-government support, Fenella Sung, a member of the pro-democracy group Canadian Friends of Hong Kong, tells me how “in Chinese culture, you respect those in authority; even if you think they’re wrong, you don’t challenge them.”

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The trouble with respecting authority is that “it sucks you into a black hole so you don’t dare to express your own opinion.” Adds Ms. Sung: “I would say that’s one great challenge for people like myself. In terms of fundamental issues, I feel I have to stick up for myself and those who don’t have a voice. And that’s the Canadian side of me.” In sticking up for themselves, then, are Hong Kongers expressing a less traditionally Chinese way of being?

Looking at my father’s Facebook profile picture, taken from a trip we took to Hong Kong and Shanghai in 2009, I recall how he engaged his identity during that visit. China was a place to practise his Mandarin and visit historical sites that he knew from classical literature. But Hong Kong was about personal history. Riding the train in Kowloon, he pointed out the old Lutheran school where he taught English. In a red taxi, we passed the bank that he once managed.

It was my first trip to my city of birth as an adult. I’d left for Canada before I’d turned 2 and, dragged from place to place by my parents as a teenager, Hong Kong had felt like an endless shopping mall. Through my father’s eyes, I saw in the skyscrapers and neon a place of memory, a place with stories – a place that lived in my blood.

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