A day after the April 26 launch of the Hong Kong Studies Initiative (HKSI) at Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC), the Hong Kong police force stepped up its crackdown on China’s critics with the arrest of nine elected officials and independence promoters. A week later, three pro-democracy activists and former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten told a Congressional panel in Washington DC that the United States must support their pushback against Beijing to protect the Special Administrative Region’s freedoms.

China’s growing influence – and its tightening of controls – on Hong Kong is hardly a surprise whatever promises Beijing and London may have made in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 about protecting the former British colony’s way of life. Many observers were rightfully skeptical early on, as evidenced by the ample media warnings about the “death of Hong Kong” in the run-up to its return to the “motherland” in 1997 after 156 years of British rule. On July 1, Beijing will celebrate the 20th anniversary of its reclaimed ownership of one of the world’s most dynamic cities and trading ports. Since then, the majority who have chosen – or been forced by circumstance – to continue living in the 2,754-square km region at the edge of southern China have largely accepted – or are resigned to – being ruled by Beijing. However, an influential minority is of the opinion that Hong Kong deserves better.

Since 2014, their resistance has taken them onto the streets of Hong Kong, with students leading what China sees as a potential threat to its territorial integrity and a revolt against the Communist Party’s authority. The “Occupy” protests and Yellow Umbrella Movement have escalated into calls for Hong Kong’s independence, and brought about last September’s historic election of six localist leaders to the region’s mostly pro-Beijing 70-member Legislative Council (LegCo).

As positions on both sides harden, the middle ground is shrinking, giving rise to questions about what lies ahead for Hong Kong. Will it be a case of “give me liberty or give me death”? Or, will Hong Kong simply fold up and achieve neither as it obediently morphs into another Chinese clone?

What is Hong Kong’s relevance?

Why should anyone outside that tiny region care, especially since it has long since reverted to China as a domestic issue? Hong Kong, and anyone with a stake in its well-being, had plenty of time before and after 1997 to work out the permutations of its possible future under China’s authoritarian rule.

As for UBC’s role, why focus on the lives of 7.3 million in a small corner of Asia located more than 10,000 km across the Pacific Ocean? And why now, when Hong Kong’s best years, according to its own inhabitants, are in the past, and the time to launch a studies initiative perhaps should have been 1997 or even 1987 rather than 2017?

The participants at the HKSI launch at the UBC campus located just outside Vancouver city justified it with a list of economic, political, intellectual, cultural and social reasons.

Hong Kong remains an economic, financial and trading hub of global significance. Notwithstanding the impressive rise of Shanghai, Shenzhen, Singapore and other Asian cities over the last 20 years, it has been and will likely remain an important point of contact for the West and others with China. Shanghai may have grown in size and importance but it is unlikely to match Hong Kong’s well-honed role and success at combining Chinese business skills with Western commercial practices and regulations.

“By exposing our students to China, Asia and Hong Kong, we help them to become more globally aware citizens. As a public institution, this is what UBC can do for Canada,” said HKSI convenor Leo K. Shin, an associate professor of history and Asian studies at UBC. If Canada, and British Columbia in particular, is to realize its aim of tapping into Asia’s large and growing economies, Hong Kong is an inevitable point of connection. With Donald Trump’s United States in the mood to break trade agreements and favor protectionism, Canada needs alternative markets and economic partners, especially the large growing ones in Asia.

Vancouver’s interest in Hong Kong extends beyond its position as a watch post and trade link. The two cities have built up deep social and cultural ties, mostly from the late 1960s when the first major wave of Hong Kongers fled for Vancouver to escape China’s political instability unleashed by Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

Yves Tiberghien, director of UBC’s Institute of Asian Research and executive director of the UBC China Council, said that there are about 700,000 Canadian citizens or permanent residents of Hong Kong descent, and another 500,000 or more in Hong Kong who are holding Canadian citizenship.

“So, that’s a big component of Canada, forming a link between Vancouver and Hong Kong,” he said. “What happens in Hong Kong affects a lot of people here in Canada, which therefore matters a lot to us here.”

At a UBC forum last year, Robert Lee, a Canada-born real estate tycoon, recounted how the migration of businesspeople and professionals from Hong Kong in the late 1960s injected both wealth and talent into Vancouver. Among the new migrants was the late David Lam, a real estate tycoon himself and a philanthropist, who had arrived poor but rose to become British Columbia’s first lieutenant-governor of Chinese ancestry. He served with distinction from 1988 to 1995.

Another speaker at the HKSI launch, sinologist Diana Lary, served as a Canadian diplomat in Hong Kong and Beijing in the 1980s. She recalled the surge in Hong Kong immigrants to Canada after the Chinese government had ordered soldiers to shoot and kill student protesters in Beijing city’s Tiananmen Square in June 1989. China’s brutal crackdown on its idealistic young people shook the confidence of Hong Kongers, particularly its educated and wealthy, who had grown used to living under the rule of law and civility provided by the British. Many fled to Western cities, with Vancouver as the most popular destination.

“There has never been a higher quality of immigrants in modern times. The people were hardworking, law-abiding, respected the rule of law, spoke English, and wanted their children to grow up in a tranquil environment,” said Lary, who went on to become a UBC history professor. Retired 10 years ago, she now serves as an adviser to the HKSI.

“We benefited so much from the great number of Hong Kong-born personalities who came to this country. Looking back, this was an amazing gift to [Canada],” she said.

She spoke glowingly of several successful Hong Kong-born Canadians, and picked David Lam, who died in 2010 aged 87, as “the ideal representative of any immigrant group.” Even after he stepped down from office in 1995, Lam, continued to tell migrants to settle down “as good citizens” and to “give back” to Canada, said Lary.

HKSI’s mission

Today, one of the ways to “give back” would be to keep alive the ideas and ideals of Hong Kong, including support for those fighting to uphold the rule of law and resist the spread of totalitarianism.

With the world’s largest ocean separating the two cities, Vancouver offers safe harbor and sufficient distance from China for independent academics and freedom advocates to do their work on Hong Kong.

“Hong Kong doesn’t have full democracy, but it does have a respect for the rule of law. It has been successful in opposing corruption. It’s a society that works extremely well. It is a good model for many other places,” said Lary.

Convenor Shin said the UBC and Vancouver are well-positioned “to hold informed, rational discussions about Hong Kong’s past, present and future.” The HKSI will add an outreach program to engage the wider Canadian society, and a research component with workshops and symposiums to promote Hong Kong as a subject of study.

Tiberghien, who was conducting research in Hong Kong in the run-up to the 1997 handover, described the city as “a laboratory of economic and social miracles.”

“It’s a laboratory for a lot of other issues for Asia, for policy and social change, and the struggle for democracy,” he said in introducing the HKSI.

Hong Kong vs Beijing

Not everyone at the HKSI launch was a fan of Hong Kong’s democracy advocates or an opponent of Beijing.

A member of the audience who introduced himself as a sociologist criticized the behavior of the democracy activists and street protesters as “childish” and said their message had “little substance.”

Citing American student protests against US military involvement in Vietnam in the 1960s, he questioned the purpose of the Hong Kong demonstrations.

He asked the HKSI panel, which included two University of Hong Kong academics who came for the launch, what true democracy is and how the protests help Hong Kong achieve democracy or a better life for its people. Stephen Yiu-wai Chu, director of the Hong Kong Studies Program’s School of Modern Languages and Cultures, is an expert on Cantonese movies and culture, while Professor Petula Sik-ying Ho, who teaches at the Department of Social Work and Social Administration, is a democracy activist and an open supporter of the Umbrella Movement.

The sociologist posed the question: “Is China’s takeover of Hong Kong all bad?”

Addressing the lament of Professor Chu that the Hong Kong movie industry has been dramatically eclipsed by China’s rise, he said the region’s film producers and actors should come to terms with the new reality.

“You have to factor in the China market and audience,” the sociologist said. He suggested that Hong Kong’s movie industry is living in the past – its self-proclaimed golden era of the 1960s to 1980s. Today, Hollywood, which previously never had to court Asia, has begun actively collaborating with China.

Also disagreeing with the panel was an immigration lawyer based in nearby Richmond, who said he was “not convinced that China wants to kill Hong Kong.” Despite the anxiety over China, he said the region remains vibrant and prosperous.

In response, panel member Josephine Chiu-Duke, an associate professor at the UBC Department of Asian Studies, said the focus should not be on democracy or prosperity alone, but a system of government that protects the people’s basic rights and freedoms.

The problem for Hong Kong and the rest of the world is that China doesn’t understand or practice the rule of law, said Chiu-Duke, who is also a co-director of the UBC’s Centre for Chinese Research and a member of the HKSI team.

Among Hong Kong ’s greatest strengths, the legacy of Britain’s colonial rule, are its institutions based on the rule of law and an independent judiciary that have protected the region’s plurality, and the diversity of political interests. Hong Kong is also administered by an honest and efficient civil service that has helped maintain its status as one of the world’s freest economies. Unlike much of Asia, Hong Kongers enjoy a full range of civil liberties, including press, speech, and assembly freedoms, and the exercise of free and fair elections for the legislature. All these are under threat as China’s influence grows.

“How do we ensure that the universal basic rights are protected by the government?” she asked. The test of a successful society is whether the power of the government can be restrained when it tries to encroach on the rights and freedoms of the people.

The signs are ominously pointing the other way as China has resorted to abducting bookstore owners while continuing with its arrest of journalists and elected officials. It adds to Hong Kong’s mood of decline, especially for those who have lived through some of its best economic times in the 1970s to the 1990s.

But is Beijing alone responsible for Hong Kong’s decline? Who else is culpable? The seeds for Hong Kong’s worsening wealth inequality and miserable housing conditions were sowed during British rule. The 15 families that reportedly control 84% of its GDP today built the foundations for their extreme wealth with the blessings of a colonial government tasked with looking after Great Britain’s interests rather than the welfare of the colonized natives. The system created a class of local hyper-capitalists whose main priorities were (and still are) to make as much money as possible and to find safe passage out of China for their families and wealth. This has set the stage for Hong Kong’s current political friction, much of which is fueled by anger over worsening living conditions rather than any demand for democracy or free speech. Ultimately, Hong Kong’s irreconcilable contradictions reflect not just the fading of the colonial legacy, but the bankruptcy of Chinese political thought. The Chinese have shown yet again they are unable to build a society that respects plurality and diversity. The winner-takes-all syndrome that has dominated Chinese political culture, whether under feudalism, dynastic rule or modern-day communism, leaves little room for debate or consensus building. Hong Kong’s loss of freedoms following the end of British rule was not only inevitable but irreversible.

Research topic: Beijing vs Hong Kong in Vancouver

For Hong Kong watchers, the pursuit of serious research and information will likely become more costly and difficult as China tightens its grip on the media and academia.

Researchers should consider studying Vancouver as a new battleground of ideas pitching Beijing against Hong Kong and Taiwan. About 20% of Metro Vancouver’s 2.5 million people are of ethnic Chinese descent. The vast majority have ties with mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Vancouver, touted as the most Asian city in North America, also has migrants of Chinese descent from Southeast Asia. This uniquely broad mix of the Chinese diaspora in a western democratic setting warrants detailed research.

Vancouver’s uniquely broad mix of the Chinese diaspora in a western democratic setting warrants detailed research

At a UBC forum on May 19, Lam Wing-Kee, one of the bookstore owners abducted by Chinese security forces in 2015 and held without charge for months, gave an anti-Beijing talk in Cantonese to more than 100 Canadians with Hong Kong ties.

On a speaking tour of the US and Canada, Lam repeated his message that Hong Kongers and their supporters abroad must speak out against China’s human rights abuses. His UBC talk was sponsored by the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement and organised by the Vancouver Hong Kong Forum Society (VHKFS).

The previous week, China’s new ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, was in Vancouver to talk up business for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to revive and expand the old Silk Road linking Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Yet, back in China and Hong Kong, the business communities are deeply skeptical as the ambitious and vague initiative, hatched by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013, contains enormous geopolitical and economic risks.

More importantly, Lu didn’t discuss the risk of doing business in China for Canadian companies. In March 2016, China Customs arrested the owners of Richmond-based Lulu Winery, John Chang and his wife, Allison Lu, for allegedly under-reporting the value of wine they exported to China. The winemakers, who have been held in China since their arrest, face smuggling charges that carry prison terms ranging from 10 years to life, according to a CBC report.

Their lawyers at Fasken Martineau said China Customs incarcerated and charged Chang and Lu with smuggling “and then spent the next 10 months seeking to obtain evidence to substantiate the charge.”

The firm’s legal brief, which has been sent to Ottawa, describes China Customs as using excessive power to jail “the owners of a reputable Canadian business” on “a mere allegation of non-compliance with customs valuation rules,”

The Vancouver-based Georgia Straight newspaper published a commentary slamming China for ignoring the rule of law in its “outrageous” treatment of the couple.

Editor Charlie Smith, one of the few Canadian journalists with a balanced view of the Chinese role in the city’s housing challenge, wrote that Beijing’s already poor image in Metro Vancouver is “only going to get worse” when the couple goes on trial in Shanghai on the smuggling charges.

Aware of its image problems, Beijing is stepping up its PR efforts in Vancouver. Last year, pro-Beijing supporters raised their profile at several events in Vancouver. They supported celebrations for the 40th anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death in the suburb of Richmond and the 67th anniversary of the founding of the People’ Republic of China in Vancouver’s city hall. On both occasions, they were met by protesters who condemned the organizers’ support for Mao and Xi. The Canadian Alliance of Chinese Associations (CACA), a pro-Beijing organisation, also took part in an anti-racism rally in Richmond, and helped raise funds at a charity event in August that was attended by Canadian politicians.

Little is known about the CACA and the dozens of associations that claim to represent sections of Metro Vancouver’s ethnic Chinese population. Where do they stand on issues of interest to Canada, and the rise of China? How much does the Chinese government support their efforts? Last December, Liu Fei, China’s Vancouver-based consul-general, told the Vancouver Sun that her office would launch a campaign to highlight Chinese and Chinese-Canadian contributions to British Columbia.

The community is deeply divided as was evident during Lam’s talk.

A member of the audience speaking in Mandarin hit back at Lam’s criticism of China and questioned if the US has a better human rights record. The man left after he was shouted down by a few people in the largely pro-Hong Kong audience.

In an interview, Miu Chung Yan, president of the Vancouver Hong Kong Forum Society, spoke of the importance of  facilitating dialogue between Vancouver’s different groups of Chinese.

“VHKFS provides an alternative platform for people in the Chinese community to voice their opinions and concerns regarding Hong Kong and local issues,” he said. Established in 1991, the society has laid dormant for “a very long time”, but there are plans now to revive its activities due to the increase in Chinese-related issues.

“We are gradually reactivating our work. We will have a retreat this summer to discuss our mandates and plans. Facilitating healthy dialogue among different groups on issues related to Hong Kong will be something that we will consider,” Yan said.

A first open debate between the supporters of Beijing and the Hong Kong-Taiwan camp would be an excellent start. It would be an achievement for Vancouver to have rival Chinese groups openly discuss the subjects of human rights and the rule of law. Pro-Beijing supporters should be given the opportunity to explain their opposition to a free society and to take questions from their critics.

Xi Jinping’s shadow over BC’s 2017 election

The more urgent challenge for Metro Vancouver’s Chinese community, particularly its newer migrants, is its relationship with the region’s other communities. To most Canadians, the Hong Kong-Beijing fights and the Cantonese-Mandarin divide are invisible, even irrelevant, in the local context. Why import these alien issues into Canada? It also reinforces a stereotype that the Chinese are a monolithic inward-looking group who are not quite Canadian.

The “typical” Chinese migrant is seen as a footloose trader who holds positions in Vancouver as well as Hong Kong and/or mainland China. The display of conspicuous wealth by some Chinese, which some believe represents the behavior of the broader community, offends Canadians’ egalitarian sensibility. Of political consequence is that it has fed the unbalanced populist narrative that Chinese migrants and their huge stash of offshore wealth are pricing “hardworking Canadians” out of Vancouver and, more recently, Toronto, too. The new stereotype of the uncaring affluent Chinese Canadian living in Vancouver is symbolized by the shallow characters featured in the reality television web series, “Ultra Rich Asian Girls”.

But the community as a whole has been slow or unwilling to address these negative images and accusations.  It comes at a time when multiculturalism is under attack, and the Chinese have the most to lose if race-based populism takes hold. Most ignore the mounting negative press that the community attracts, especially those from mainland China who do not have English or French language skills. That some are able to function in near-exclusive Chinese-speaking environments has served only to preserve their continued alienation from mainstream Canada.

In the British Columbia provincial election on May 9, the BC Liberals party lost the outright majority that it had held since 2001. It won 43 of the 87 seats, down from 47 of the 85 contested in the 2013 election. It faces the prospect of losing power if the opposition New Democratic Party (NDP), which took 41 seats, and the Greens with three seats decide to form a coalition government between them.

The 2017 election also revealed signs of a racial divide, with the Liberals likely to have won most of the ethnic Chinese vote and the NDP taking the bulk of Indian, Filipino and Taiwanese support. The position of Metro Vancouver’s white residents who form the majority of voters is harder to decipher, although many support the NDP in protest against the Liberals’ handling of housing and environmental issues. In Richmond, where ethnic Chinese form more than half the city’s population, the Liberals won all four seats.

Overall, the Liberals lost ground in the crucial Metro Vancouver region as the party was seen to be working for real estate developers and their wealthy Chinese patrons. Premier Christy Clark and Trade Minister Teresa Wat are regarded as being too pro-Beijing, according to the Georgia Straight’s Smith, a long-time watcher of Metro Vancouver politics.

The region’s small community of Taiwanese background provided the NDP with four candidates, said Smith. Three were elected, with the voters’ growing anti-China sentiments a likely contributing factor in their victories.

On becoming premier in 2011, Clark stepped up her predecessor’s push for closer economic ties with Asia, especially China. Her government’s China-focused strategy has gone down badly with Metro Vancouverites. Due largely to unbalanced media reporting, Chinese migrants and their investments have been blamed for a host of ills, including boosting the region’s property values, turning Richmond into Canada’s Shenzhen and corrupting the province’s otherwise innocent politicians.

Xi Jinping who became China’s president in 2013 has added to the burden of being Chinese outside China. More than any of his predecessors, Xi has alienated Canadians with his government’s aggressive foreign policy moves, and worsening record on human rights and press freedom. Over the past year, China’s relations with India have deteriorated, while its perceived bullying of Hong Kong and Taiwan, and territorial disputes with Southeast Asia over the South China Sea have escalated, negating Beijing’s drive to improve its image.

If China’s relations with the US and other Asian neighbors continue to be rocky at the same time that Beijing is pushing for a higher global profile, what impact might that have on race relations in multicultural Metro Vancouver and Toronto? The alienation of some established white residents living among Richmond’s largely Mandarin-speaking population remains a concern. Despite years of government campaigning to persuade people to use the country’s two official languages, English and French, Chinese businesses continue to advertise exclusively in Mandarin.

In a volatile era that combines Trump, Brexit, Xi Jinping and global terrorism, the issues of ethnic relations, immigration and geopolitics are becoming dangerously intertwined and explosive. Canada’s diverse Chinese groups can no longer afford to be seen as insular. They must make an effort to understand the world and engage with it. For that to happen, they must research and debate their identities and values in the new global setting. For the Chinese, Vancouver is perfect not just for the study of Hong Kong or China, but of themselves, too – what they stand for and how they can better relate to others.

Weng Hoong Ng