Canada

‘My heart is still with Hong Kong’: Activists in exile make lives in Canada, but many still live in fear

News Today || Canada News |

Born in Hong Kong in the 1980s, “Peter” grew up under British rule before the former colony was handed back to communist China.

Like many in his generation, Peter breezed through life, striving for a university degree, a good career and a comfortable living.

Largely he was a political bystander.

Then, in 2014, he joined his first political protest during the Umbrella Movement, which had been born from demands for more transparency in the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive. Instead of opening up the race, Chinese authorities continued to hand-pick their own pre-screened candidates.

Ads

Today, Peter lives in Canada, an activist in exile, whose perspective has been changed by the battles he’s fought and the struggle against a seemingly uncompromising state.

“Peaceful rallies are meaningless. They are like going to karaoke. When you are done, everyone just goes home, with little accomplished,” says Peter, who asked that his real name not to be used due to his fear for his family’s safety in Hong Kong.

From the Umbrella Movement, he began joining calls to cause local “disruptions” against the Mainland Chinese shoppers jamming Hong Kong streets and driving up prices of necessities, and volunteered in the political campaigns to support “localist candidates.”

“We occupied Admiralty, Mong Kok, Tsim Tsa Tsui and Central (all Hong Kong commercial activity hubs) and caused disruptions so the government could not ignore us and must listen to our demands,” he says.

“We want autonomy and independence, and no interference from China.”

Instead, pro-democracy, liberal candidates, even those who won seats in the legislature, were disqualified and stripped of their offices. The crackdown thus far has calmed the violent confrontation between authorities and protesters.

As more and more of the localists’ supporters and organizers were arrested and charged around him, Peter said he was constantly under surveillance in Hong Kong.

“I could feel they were getting closer and closer to me. I had no choice but to leave,” says Peter.

Recently, he was granted asylum in Canada. He’s going to school in this country and would like to pursue a higher education.

“I’m physically here but my heart is still with Hong Kong.”

Since he has been in Canada, Peter has not only participated in pro-Hong Kong rallies but also joined protests organized by other communities against dictatorships around the world. He participates in human rights conferences and volunteers in Canadian political campaigns and protests to lend a voice to his voiceless compatriots.

“If you can’t even have a dream, who will lead the way for change?” asks Peter. “You can have the American dream and Chinese dream. We can also have the Hong Kong dream.”

He believes a collaborative international community can stop an emboldened China.

In November, Canada joined the international chorus critical of China’s handling of Hong Kong by opening the door for Hong Kong residents with post-secondary education to apply for open work permits, which are valid for as long as three years and can potentially lead to permanent residence.

Canada and Hong Kong have a connection that dates to the Second World War, when Canadian soldiers were dispatched as part of an unsuccessful effort to defeat the invading Japanese. Canada’s dead would number 554.

In anticipating China’s takeover of Hong Kong, hundreds of thousands of those with means immigrated to Canada before 1997. Currently, an estimated 300,000 Canadian citizens live there.

RELATED:  How can all Canadians get good dental care? New U of T free clinic aims to figure it out | CBC News

In making the announcement in November, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino reiterated that Canada continues to support the people of Hong Kong and to stand up for democracy and human rights.

“The people-to-people ties between Canada and Hong Kong are strong and deep, and these new measures celebrate those long-standing relationships,” Mendicino said.

That strong connection has certainly helped Peter and others fleeing Hong Kong, who are being supported by a network of Canadian volunteers in coming here for protection and settling in local communities.

There is, nonetheless, an abiding fear that hangs over many of the Hong Kong expats. Asylum seekers approached by the Star were reluctant to share details of their escapes. Even their supporters were concerned over the surveillance by Hong Kong and Chinese officials here. They all required communications and contacts only through highly secured social media apps, fearing any intel eavesdropping and tracing.

“Bruce,” himself a proud Hong Konger, and other like-minded individuals launched the New Hong Kong Cultural Club in the summer of 2019, alarmed by what they called increased police violence against protesters and Beijing’s iron-fisted approach against dissent.

The Hong Kong government started laying trumped-up charges of rioting “and we asked ourselves what we can do and should do,” said Bruce, who also asked that his real name not be used for fear of repercussions because of his support for the dissidents.

“Some people were released and jumped bail. They would need political asylum.”

Through personal networks in Hong Kong, those who make it to Canada are connected with the club, whose volunteers offer shelters, food and sometimes even financial support. They also help them translate and navigate the asylum system.

So far, the group has directly assisted about 30 people, ranging from 18 years old to early 40s, all of whom have been on the front lines of those protests or organizers.

Bruce, who came to Canada to study in the 1980s, says many of the newcomers had no idea about the asylum process and initially thought they would be here just for a break and then return home.

“They were relieved when they got here, but after some time, they started to feel homesick and miserable, worrying about their families and about their own future,” he says. “They get frustrated when they can’t find jobs and have financial difficulties. Sometimes they don’t even have money to buy food and need to use the food banks. They feel lost.”

New to Canada, many of those in exile are also initially distrustful of the volunteers, not knowing the political landscape in Canada.

“Uncle Hoan,” a retired computer programmer originally from Hong Kong, has been driving the new arrivals around to get their documents and he helps prepare for their asylum case, and sometimes accompanies them to hearings.

Ottawa’s new immigration pathways are welcomed, he says, because they can supplement the U.K. contingency measures, which only help resettle the holders of the British National (Overseas) passports issued to Hong Kongers born before China’s takeover in 1997.

“They didn’t trust us at first and would not even reveal much about their personal life with us,” says Hoan, who asked that his first name be withheld. “Their lives are pretty secluded here.”

That’s not surprising, he says, because even the Chinese community in Canada is pretty divided about China’s approach to Hong Kong, sometimes even within families.

RELATED:  Former Argonauts offensive lineman Chris Schultz dies at age 61 | CBC Sports

While some believe China has an absolute say over the island’s affairs or they are skeptical over the prospects of democracy within an autocracy, others are sympathetic and admire the young advocates’ determination to preserve the unique freedom and culture that has made Hong Kong the metropolitan centre that it is.

Hoan had plenty of experience helping dissidents settling in Canada after Beijing’s crackdown on the democratic movement in China in 1989.

Back then, he says, there was much stronger community support for Chinese dissidents, but now the response has been mixed. Even volunteers now must act surreptitiously when offering support, not sure if there are informants who may tip off Chinese authorities to “make trouble” for their relatives back home.

Loading…

Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…Loading…

For almost every protest that advocates organize here, he notes, they face counterprotests by pro-China supporters, who intimidate them with their own placards.

Hoan hopes Canada will continue its role as an international pro-democracy peacemaker.

He says so far the country’s special immigration programs are limited to Hong Kong residents with post-secondary education. Those facing political persecution, he says, may not have a college degree and don’t have time to plan and apply for immigration.

“People are arrested and jailed. Sometimes their passports are seized. Many cannot even travel. Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, all borders are closed and no one can leave,” says Hoan, who had plenty of experience helping dissidents settling in Canada after Beijing’s crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Peter felt lucky that he was among the first wave of Hong Kong dissidents who made it out after Beijing ramped up its attacks on democracy and the opposition last year.

A self-acclaimed “localist” — part of the grassroots movement against the perceived encroachment of the Chinese central government on the former British colony — Peter is upset Beijing has imposed its rules unilaterally, trying to assimilate Hong Kong and turn it into just another Mainland city under its grip.

In December, one of them, Sixtus Leung Chung-hang, a convenor of a local political group, fled to seek asylum in the U.S., following the lead of former legislator Ted Hui Chi-fung, who is in exile in Denmark.

Just in January, Hong Kong authorities arrested 55 pro-democracy activists in a mass sweep, accusing them of taking part in an unlawful primary election last July in an attempt to paralyze the legislature and subvert state power.

The global response to the developments in Hong Kong hasn’t emerged unprompted. It was a result of the deliberate effort of Hong Kong Watch, a London-based advocacy group concerned about the human rights conditions in the former British colony.

Founded in 2017, the group has worked with policymakers in the U.K., the U.S., European Union and Canada, where it is instrumental in pushing for legislation to sanction China and Hong Kong, as well as policies to accommodate the exodus of activists from Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong is an international financial centre. A lot of countries have financial interests there. To protect their own interests, they need to protect Hong Kong’s laws and freedoms,” says Aileen Calverley, a co-founder of Hong Kong Watch, who is a British and Canadian citizen.

“Only Canada by itself cannot get China to do anything. Ottawa is interested in a joint effort with other countries, especially after the two Michaels’ experience,” she added, referring to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians who have been held in China for two years since Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest in Canada.

RELATED:  Government probe into Vance allegations ended when ombudsman refused to hand over info: sources | CBC News

Calverley, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, says she would like to see a United Nations envoy investigate the human rights situation in Hong Kong and would like the international body to designate special refugee status to Hong Kong people for asylum abroad. (Under international law, individuals still remaining within their own country cannot be recognized as refugees.)

“It’s not good enough just to issue a statement without action. We need a rescue plan,” says Calverley, who hopes to launch her group’s Canadian branch in Ottawa later this year.

MP Jenny Kwan, immigration critic for the opposition NDP, too, is calling on the Liberal government to introduce special asylum measures for Hong Kongers.

“Extending the existing economic immigration measures targeting young graduates is not enough,” says the Hong Kong native. “Our consulate in Hong Kong should provide assistance in issuing travel exemptions to Hong Kong asylum seekers so that they can safely travel to Canada.”

She said the federal government should also reintroduce the expanded family sponsorship reunification stream to include extended family members so that they can reunite with family in Canada.

“This government cannot stand by while human rights are being abused,” said Kwan. “The One Country, Two Systems policy is now dead. The escalation of mass arrests of pro-democracy activists, including former legislators, is indicative that China intends to silence all opposition to their regime.”

Lynette Ong, an expert of politics in China and Asia, says today’s China is not the same as the China in 1989, when it had a softer foreign policy in its response to international pressure.

“China is so much stronger today. Its economy is so much larger and it could survive economically with minimum level of foreign investment. The reality is China can now act in a more confident manner and unilaterally than before,” said Ong, a professor at University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy.

“When the British-Sino Joint Declaration was signed (in 1984), the world was in a different place. No one would’ve foreseen how China would’ve evolved over the last 30-plus years.”

Her prediction is the exodus of Hong Kong’s educated middle class will continue, through programs such as Canada’s immigration pathways.

In spite of the asylum protection in Canada, Peter still struggles with the dilemma of leaving Hong Kong and keeping up with the fight alongside other localists, fearing the exodus will dull the force of the opposition.

He still fears for his family in Hong Kong, even though they belong to the “blue camp” that supports the government crackdown.

“We had a strained relationship. Because of my political activism, we weren’t even talking,” says Peter, who now limits his communication with them. “And I am homesick.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

Latest Canadian News Today & Breaking Headlines – Check More

Today News || News Now || World News || US Headlines || Health || Technology News || Education News

Source

Tags
Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button
Close