Alison Lai’s grandfather arrived as a refugee in Hong Kong seven decades ago, trading the chaos of 1950s China for the safety of what was then a British colony.
In 2020, China made a refugee of Ms. Lai, too.
The pro-democracy activist fled Hong Kong, the city of her birth, for Canada last year as Beijing tightened its grip over the territory it acquired from Britain in 1997. She was part of an exodus that has only expanded since China enacted a draconian national security law to silence critics in the city it had once promised would be allowed to retain Western-style civil liberties.
Ms. Lai, 32, is one of thousands of Hong Kongers looking to build a new life in Canada. Like her, some have been granted asylum as political refugees. Others are applying for immigration programs designed to attract well-educated foreigners.
In March, 2020, Ms. Lai’s life was turned upside down in a matter of hours after a friend warned that the Hong Kong police were looking for her. A veteran of the protests that rocked the city when citizens demanded accountability from the Beijing-backed government, she had been tear-gassed, beaten with batons and followed for days by police.
Her friends were being arrested, and it was time for her to leave. By the next day, she was on a flight out of Hong Kong.
She headed for Canada, claiming asylum upon arrival – just days before Canadian authorities closed the border as a pandemic measure.
It took a year for the government to officially recognize her under the United Nations Convention relating to the Status of Refugees: someone who cannot return to their home “due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion” or other factors.
She has begun building a life in Calgary. Educated as a journalist, she now works in retail. She and other Hong Kong activists have also founded a non-profit organization, the Soteria Humanitarian Institute, to help resettle Hong Kongers, Tibetans and Uyghurs fleeing persecution in China. In Greek mythology, Soteria is the goddess of safety and preservation from harm.
But as with many Hong Kong activists, a fresh start in Canada does not mean an end to harassment and attacks from the Chinese Communist Party and its proxies.
Each day, Ms. Lai is subjected to a torrent of abuse when she opens up Soteria’s social-media accounts.
She is the first Hong Kong refugee to allow The Globe and Mail to publish their name and city of residence, hoping to draw attention to what is happening to critics of China’s authoritarian government who now live in Canada.
As the spokesperson for the group, Ms. Lai is the main target of the anonymous harassers. She receives dozens of missives daily full of foul words and misogynistic attacks. She has been sent video clips of beheadings. “You are such a shame for a Hong Konger. ... Be careful you don’t die in an accident,” one recent message said.
They have found out where she works and know her daily routine. They often threaten to pay her a visit.
Her tormentors even know when she has taken part in a protest outside the Chinese consulate in Calgary. This summer, while protesting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, Ms. Lai saw men with telephoto lenses taking pictures of the rally participants from the balconies of neighbouring buildings.
Soon after, the harassment referred to her participation in the demonstration. “Why don’t you go back to Hong Kong and protest the Winter Olympics there?” one said.
Ms. Lai’s friends have taken the matter to the RCMP and the Calgary police. Last year, Ottawa urged anyone being targeted in such a manner to speak to law enforcement.
Martin Seto, a Calgarian with the New Hong Kong Cultural Club, which also supports asylum seekers, said he spoke to the RCMP’s Integrated National Security Enforcement Team, but they told him it’s difficult, if not impossible, to trace harassment online – particularly if it’s coming from another country.
The RCMP did not respond to a request for comment.
Cherie Wong, the executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, an umbrella group for Hong Kong pro-democracy activists in Canada, said they and their supporters are particular targets for intimidation. “Harassments of dissidents in the diaspora never stops,” she said. “The Chinese Communist Party in Beijing has identified these folks as clearly disobeying the interests of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments.”
Ms. Lai said she refuses to give in to the harassers. “They sound like Chinese uncles,” she said, using a term for older men.
Nevertheless, the stress of starting over about 11,000 kilometres from home sometimes weighs heavily with her. She left behind a well-paying job – and parents who as recently as this spring received a visit from Hong Kong police officers looking for her.
On rare occasions, the enormity of what she has taken on is too much to bear.
“Last winter – it was the first winter in Calgary. I was so cold after I took a shower. And I couldn’t stop crying,” Ms. Lai recalled.
If she had not chosen this life, she could still be enjoying warm weather in Hong Kong, taking afternoon tea or shopping.
But she remains committed to her path and motivated by two goals: supporting other exiles from China and telling the story of what the Chinese Communist Party has done to her people. “When you find something wrong, it is a citizen’s responsibility to tell the government they are wrong.”
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