Daphne Bramham: Even in Canada, Hong Kong supporters fear retaliation

OPINION: These are challenging and dangerous times that require all of us to stand together for our freedoms and rights

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For the first time in 30 years of fighting for human rights in China, Mabel Tung and Fenella Sung felt afraid last weekend.

They were among the hundreds who went to rallies in Vancouver to support the Hong Kong’s peaceful protest movement. They came face to face with counter-protesters who walked up to them and took close-up photos of them on their phones.

They were already unnerved by social media postings by some counter-protesters claiming they would bring knives, stones, bricks and even an axe and a pellet gun to the Broadway SkyTrain station and outside the Chinese consul general’s home and urging others to do the same.

Vancouver police turned out in force to ensure everyone’s safety. Still, one protest scheduled for downtown Saturday night was cancelled.

Demonstrators rallied at the Broadway-City Hall SkyTrain Station in Vancouver. DON MACKINNON / AFP/Getty Images

In Montreal, after police advised Pride Parade organizers of “a potential attempt to sabotage the parade by pro-Communists,” a group of LGBT supporters from ACTION Free Hong Kong was told to stay away from Sunday’s parade that included Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Quebec Premier Francois Legault, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Green Leader Elizabeth May.

Unsurprisingly, the threats have left organizers wary about next time. But they insist there will be more protests.

“It’s the first time after 30 years that we are scared about speaking our minds,” said Tung. She’s been an organizer with the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement since 1989 when it was formed in response to the June 4 massacre of Chinese students in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.

Sung, an organizer for the Canadian Friends of Hong Kong Movement, has been highly visible and vocal over those years.

Now, she said, “I’m concerned for the safety and protection of the Canadian community and the Chinese Canadians here who are exercising our right to freedom of assembly.”

Others now worry about freedom of religion and their safety even at prayer, after pro-Beijing activists surrounded a Vancouver church Sunday where Christians were praying for peace and human rights in Hong Kong. They photographed and taunted worshippers as police escorted them from the building.

“A lot of people were a bit traumatized,” said Father Richard Soo, noting all of them are highly aware of the attacks on Christians, Muslims and Buddhists in China.

Fenella Sung, a pro-democracy for Hong Kong supporter, hasn’t felt unsafe at rallies — until last weekend in Vancouver. Gerry Kahrmann / PNG

Chinese Canadians as a group have never been single-minded, even though some of the largest and oldest organizations including the Chinese Benevolent Association and the Freemasons are staunch defenders of the Chinese Communist Party and the government.

Yet, Chinese Canadians never feared retaliation for speaking freely in Canada about deeply divisive issues that trace China’s modern history. The Communist Revolution. Taiwan. Tibet. The Cultural Revolution. The Tiananmen massacre. The treatment of Falun Gong members and Uighurs. Hong Kong post-1997.

Since 2012, Alex Cheung has been organizing Vancouver rallies to draw attention to the changes occurring in Hong Kong. He’s never been threatened or intimidated before this weekend.

It didn’t happen in 2012 when he and others opposed a plan to replace Hong Kong’s history textbooks with ones used in China. After widespread protests, that plan was withdrawn.

(Coincidentally, on the same day that Cheung talked about those first protests, the state-sponsored Global Times’s Canadian edition had a story about it being time for Hong Kong schools to use publications with “positive values.”

Quoting Lee Ka-kui, chairman of the Hong Kong Publishing Federation, it said that “some youngsters lack understanding of the values promoted by their motherland.”)

In 2014, Cheung took to Vancouver streets again to support the Umbrella Movement that occupied the central business district for several months to push for full, democratic elections.

Now, Cheung no longer feels safe in some places in Metro Vancouver. And more than anything — as a Canadian living in Canada, not China — it makes him angry.

Scenes from a rally outside the Chinese consulate to protest against “police brutality” against pro-Hong Kong supporters by police in Hong Kong as well as pro China demonstrators, in Vancouver Aug. 18. NICK PROCAYLO / PNG

What’s behind the change is reborn chauvinism that’s accompanied China’s spectacular economic rise and growing global ambitions. And, as Chinese Canadian protest organizers are well aware, that includes the belief among leaders of the Chinese Communist Party that ethnicity trumps citizenship. Anyone with Chinese ancestry is Chinese first and owes loyalty to the motherland.

Canada’s large and growing numbers of both mainland Chinese immigrants and foreign students attending Canadian public post-secondary institutions are steeped in that fervent patriotism and their numbers dwarf those of recent immigrants from Hong Kong.

According to 2016 census numbers, there are 208,935 Hong Kong immigrants living here and 649,260 Mainland Chinese immigrants, most of whom arrived since 1990.

The CCP’s United Front Work Department, the government’s Overseas Chinese Office, social media, state-run or controlled local media and Chinese nationals studying or working abroad are used to spread the message of loyalty and obedience to the diaspora.

This week, Twitter said closed down 936 accounts based on evidence of state-sponsored propaganda being dispersed through 200,000 “spammy networks.”

Presidents of Canada’s top research universities were warned last spring by top spy David Vigneault that Chinese government officials might try to pressure students, faculty and researchers to participate in demonstrations or spy on other student to further state interests.

The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also noted that Chinese legislation compels Chinese nationals to cooperate with state intelligence officials regardless of whether they are at home or abroad, or face jail time.

More recently, security officials briefed politicians about the possibility of foreign governments attempting to influence or interfere with October’s federal election.

These are challenging and dangerous times that require all of us to stand together for the freedoms and rights that so many other Canadians have fought for in the past.

dbramham@postmedia.com

Twitter: @bramham_daphne

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