As mass protests in Hong Kong grab headlines around the world, expatriate Canadians living in the former British colony say the demonstrations have been intense — and are raising fresh concerns about the territory’s future.
Three expatriates made it clear Friday they are deeply concerned for Hong Kong’s stressed-out population, even though their personal safety has not been put at risk.
“The mood right now in Hong Kong is tense and people are emotionally overwrought,” said Andrew Work, who lived and worked in Quebec, Ontario and British Columbia before moving to Hong Kong 23 years ago.
“They have very complex emotions because this all goes to the future of Hong Kong.”
The city’s downtown was calm Friday after days of demonstrations prompted by a proposed extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to China for trial.
Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets on Sunday, and the protesters maintained a presence through Thursday night. They say they want to prevent the semi-autonomous Chinese territory from eroding the freedoms promised when Britain ended its colonial rule in 1997.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong police reportedly fired rubber bullets and beanbag rounds at protesters, leaving 81 people injured.
“I don’t think anyone (from Canada) is afraid for their public safety, unless they are choosing to engage directly in the public protests,” said Work, a public policy analyst and former executive director of the Canadian Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong.
“Hong Kong is one of the safest cities in the world.”
Work said the biggest concern for those living in Hong Kong is the perception that China is trying to impose its legal system on the territory — even though the extradition bill was drafted in Hong Kong.
“People trust the legal system in Hong Kong,” he said. “However, if the legal system in China is able to extend itself into Hong Kong … that is where they have a problem. This is why so many people … are taking to the streets.”
According to some estimates, there are more than 200,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong.
Hollie Ivany, a teacher from Cape Breton who has lived in Hong Kong for eight years, chose her words carefully when describing how she felt about the protests and Canada’s bruised relationship with China.
She said the people she knows from Hong Kong are struggling to understand what the proposed law will mean.
“It’s been tumultuous, stressful and difficult for them,” she said.
“As a foreigner, I have privilege and I am … somewhat removed from the situation … (But) I’ve been standing with them and observing the experience they’ve been having. It’s certainly on my radar. But by no means am I feeling unsafe.”
Meanwhile, the protests are threatening to further derail Canada’s already shaky relationship with China.
On Thursday, China’s embassy in Canada denounced the Canadian government’s recent comments on the protests as “irresponsible” and “erroneous.”
That appeared to be a reference to a statement from Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who said any legislation should preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy, judicial independence and rule of law.
“Canada remains concerned about the potential effect these proposals may have on the large number of Canadian citizens in Hong Kong, on business confidence, and on Hong Kong’s international reputation,” Freeland said. “Freedom of expression and assembly are the bedrock of Hong Kong’s free society.”
Canada and China are already locked in an ugly dispute over last December’s arrest in Vancouver of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who is the target of a U.S. extradition request on charges of violating U.S. sanctions against Iran.
China has detained two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in apparent retaliation.
Another Canadian living in Hong Kong — a senior banking executive from Toronto who asked to remain anonymous — said the rising political tensions have left him reluctant to travel to mainland China.
He said the extradition bill has become a potent symbol for those who are convinced China is trying to hasten its inevitable takeover of Hong Kong, which is slated to happen in 2047.
“It sends the signal that China is getting closer to managing the affairs of Hong Kong,” said the executive, who has worked in Hong Kong for the past five years.
“If anyone here is doing anything to speed that process up, they’re going to fight it tooth and nail.”
He said older members of Hong Kong’s population realize their children will not enjoy the wealth, privileges and freedoms they have grown used to.
“The Hong Kongers I speak to in my office, they are despondent, they are sorrowful … In those first days of the protests, they were sick with resignation about the inevitability of what’s coming at them,” he said.
“Every time they see evidence of it coming at them faster, it sinks in deeper.”
However, the executive said it would be a mistake to assume China is the prime mover behind the extradition bill.
“This a Hong Kong-originated bill,” he said, noting the anger of the protesters has been aimed at Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who faced calls from within her government Friday to delay the legislation.
“When China wants someone in Hong Kong, they just take them off the street,” he said. ”They don’t need an extradition agreement to pick someone up.”
Michael MacDonald, The Canadian Press