Andy raises a hand and begins to count the crimes he has committed as a Hong Kong protester in the past five months.
Arson. Attacking police. Inciting violence.
“Each is serious enough to land me in prison, and follow me my whole life,” he says.
Andy is 16, too young to drive or vote in Hong Kong, where he lives – although he is a Canadian citizen.
Away from the protest lines, he strikes an unimposing presence, with a slight figure, who plays basketball and has worked part-time at McDonald’s. He won’t finish secondary school for another two years.
But over the course of the past five months, he has grown hardened by conflict with police. He has travelled to remote spots in the city’s mountains to train for street conflict, practising techniques for physically grappling with police and throwing bricks, which he can now confidently hurl more than 20 metres. He has become conversant in the chemistry of manufacturing potent Molotov cocktails and has joined, by his count, more than 70 protests, many involving violent clashes. He has been struck by non-lethal police fire, battered in the head by so many pepper balls they left his hair greyed and narrowly escaped arrest on multiple occasions. He has sent friends a note to distribute if he dies.
In developing a comfort with violence, however, Andy and other Canadian protesters have dragged Ottawa into increasingly complex questions about the posture it should adopt.
They have also subjected the Trudeau government to renewed criticism for inaction as other countries, including the United States and Britain, marshal a more pointed response to protests in Hong Kong that have taken a much more violent turn in the past week, including a lengthy police siege of the city’s Polytechnic University.
Andy, whose full name The Globe and Mail is not disclosing because he risks legal consequences for speaking openly, is among a group of protesters who have called for help from the Canadian consulate in Hong Kong while he was inside Polytechnic University. He was told to call a number where he left a message but received no reply, he said. He eventually escaped with the help of friends.
”If I didn’t make it on that day, it’s possible I would still be stuck at PolyU now,” he said.
Ottawa did not disclose how many requests for help it has received from students at the university.
“Global Affairs is aware that Canadians were affected by the situation at Polytechnic University and they all have received consular services,” spokesperson Barbara Harvey said. “Consular officials in Hong Kong are in contact with local authorities.”
Ms. Harvey provided a local number that can be used by Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance. When The Globe called, a recording said the consulate was closed for lunch. It presented no option for reporting an emergency, although it offered information on Canadian avian flu preparations.
Canada, which has an estimated 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, has publicly expressed concern over violence in the city, but has been more muted than the U.S., where Congress this week passed a Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act that would freeze U.S. assets of officials who suppress basic human rights, and Britain, which on Wednesday publicly accused China of torturing a local staffer at its Hong Kong consulate.
“It is a world action against the tyranny and Canada is doing like, nothing,” said Henry Lam, a Vancouver-based writer who has joined pro-Hong Kong demonstrations.
“Canada needs to act, fast and firm. Not only for Hong Kong but for ourselves, to fend off Communist China.”
Hong Kong authorities have declared most recent demonstrations to be illegal, and the city does not have unfettered rights of assembly.
Former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney said Canada’s margin to manoeuvre to help citizens in Hong Kong is constrained.
“The Canadian government should do what it can to help Canadians in distress, but those options are very limited if the host government is unwilling to co-operate, or is itself part of the problem,” he said.
Mr. Mulroney said Canada’s best course of action is co-ordinated international pressure on Hong Kong.
“What we can and should do, in concert with our allies, is to pressure Hong Kong to respect the human rights of all protesters, whatever their nationality, and to use the minimum amount of force required to restore order,” Mr. Mulroney said.
“In addition, we need to step up efforts to pressure the Hong Kong government to take much more seriously the legitimate demands of its own people. Helping to shine a public, international light on what’s happening is very important.”
The conduct of police in Hong Kong, which human-rights groups have criticized as unnecessarily violent, has also affected Canadians. Earlier this month, Dickson Cheung, 42, was walking with his wife to a family birthday celebration when they walked past protesters calling out their names as they were being arrested. When Mr. Cheung and his wife stopped to listen, riot police rushed over, asking questions. “My wife got really upset saying, ‘why are you screaming at us? We are just walking on the street,’ ” Mr. Cheung recalled. ”The riot police escalated, and said they will capture us and rape my wife.”
Moments later, he called an emergency number in Ottawa to ask whether there was any place he could seek sanctuary as a Canadian. The response, which he noted down at the time: “You decided to go to Hong Kong so you bear the responsibility to keep yourself safe. What do you want the Canadian government to do anyway?”
Mr. Cheung was displeased. “We are Canadians. We are under threat right now,” he said. He recalled a speech he gave at a demonstration this summer, when he described one of his high-school teachers in Vancouver, a veteran shot while fighting to protect Hong Kong during the Second World War. “As a Canadian, I wanted to show support, that Canadians do care about Hong Kong,” he said. That should not be history alone, he added. “I just don’t think it’s right for the Canadian government right now to turn a blind eye to what’s going on in the city.”
Indeed, difficult questions for Canada in Hong Kong are unlikely to disappear any time soon. “Hong Kong has passed the point of no return – the public has started to use physical violence to counter the government’s institutional violence, and seeing that as the only effective means,” said Simon Shen, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Foreign measures, along the lines of legislation passed by the U.S. Congress are “the only structural means to help Hong Kong return to normalcy,” he said.
Protesters like Andy, meanwhile, see little prospect of returning to their previous lives, as protests have shifted from demands for the repeal of a proposed extradition bill – now withdrawn – to a much larger movement. “The whole thing has changed,” he says. “We want to overthrow the Communist Party and gain independence.”
He attended his first protest on June 9, encouraged and joined by a father who spent part of his childhood in Canada. Andy has travelled frequently to China, where his grandparents live, but his views on the country were affected by his reading on the Tiananmen massacre of 1989, and his conclusion that Chinese growth has been achieved through unfair treatment of labourers.
The death of a protester who jumped from a building on June 15 sparked in Andy a desire to “carry on that guy’s duty, and help him finish the journey he wasn’t able to complete.” He remembers the first time he attacked police, on July 1, throwing a brick as he choked on clouds of tear gas. At first, he was wracked by guilt.
Now, violence has become normal. He’s assembled numerous Molotov cocktails, adding sugar, detergent or flour to enhance their potency. He’s tossed hundreds of bricks and used a slingshot to fling projectiles. He’s joined others at remote spots to train, learning techniques to fight police from experts in Thai boxing.
Like others, he derides police as “dogs.”
“People in Hong Kong would feel very happy knowing about the death of police officers. This is an occupation that people look down on,” he said.
He is angry, too, with Hong Kong’s leadership, which he sees as preoccupied with serving wealthy and Chinese interests, while people of his generation look on at the near impossibility of owning a home or even a car.
And so, he fights, although he is plagued by fear. “Every time I go out, I see it as the last time,” he says.
In a brief letter he handed to his friends earlier this year, Andy seeks to explain himself in case “something bad happens to me.”
“I’m scared to death, but what scares me more is the possibility that Hong Kong is going to lose its freedom and democracy,” he wrote.
“If death in the protests helps wakes people up, I don’t mind being the one who dies,” he added. “I’d rather be burnt to ash than remain alive as floating dust.”
With a report from Steven Chase in Ottawa
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.
Build your personal news feed
- Follow topics and authors relevant to your reading interests.
- Check your Following feed daily, and never miss an article. Access your Following feed from your account menu at the top right corner of every page.