Vancouver rally highlights local divide over China’s national security law in Hong Kong

Parkie Li was just an onlooker of Hong Kong’s protest movements when he lived and worked in the region as a school teacher before his return to Canada in 2015.

But the Richmond, B.C., resident has become an active voice in the Lower Mainland for democracy in China’s semi-autonomous region since last June, when millions of Hong Kong citizens marched in the streets clamouring for the withdrawal of a controversial extradition law.

Li, 42, was protesting again last Friday, when he joined a rally at Vancouver’s Oakridge Centre to call out a video statement by David Choi, executive chair of National Congress of Chinese Canadians (NCCC), in which he said China’s latest national security legislation is good for Hong Kong.

The legislation, passed in China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) on June 30, covers four areas of criminal activity: secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign or external forces. It grants mainland China more powers to insert itself in the affairs of Hong Kong.

The new law has been a hot-button issue on both sides of the Pacific — and the Oakridge Centre rally highlights how it has divided Chinese communities in Canada between those who see it as a move toward law and order, and opponents like Li who fear it will erode freedom of expression.

David Choi said in a Facebook video that a national security law is good for Hong Kong. The video was removed after hundreds of negative reactions from local Chinese communities. (National Congress of Chinese Canadians)

Organizations’ support for law

Established ethnic Chinese groups including the NCCC believe the mostly youth-led protests should be quelled.

“The turmoils have gravely impacted Hong Kong people’s daily lives and the city’s economy, and the people there have been desperate for the city’s continued development,” Hong Kong-born Choi said in Cantonese in the 10-minute video statement posted to the Facebook page of his organization, which was established in Vancouver 28 years ago.

The video, posted in early July, was removed after hundreds of negative reactions from people in local Chinese communities.

The Chinese Benevolent Association (CBA) of Vancouver and Hong Kong Canadians on Hong Kong Situation Association are two other community groups that have taken a positive stance on the law. In mid-July they launched a joint petition intended for Parliament Hill showing their support for the legislation.

Jun Ing’s Chinese Benevolent Association launched a petition intended for Parliament Hill to indicate support for Beijing’s national security law.

Jun Ing, vice-president of CBA Vancouver, said Ottawa should set itself apart from the U.S. when dealing with Beijing.

“In the U.S., everybody is bashing China … but what I’m seeing is we have a different opinion in Canada, and so be it,” Ing said.

Lessons from teaching

But many Hongkonger Canadians who support the protests feel they shouldn’t be represented by such groups.

Li was one of the Facebook critics of Choi’s statement. Drawing from his experiences working with youth, the former math teacher — who came to Canada in 1994, moved back to Hong Kong in 2000 and returned to B.C. in 2015 — believes heavy-handed measures are not the way to solve the protests.

Parkie Li (second from right) pictured with students from a Hong Kong secondary school during his time teaching there. Li said the Hong Kong and Chinese governments should seek compromise with protesters over the national security legislation. (Parkie Li)

“When you try to teach a student [and] to know him well, you’re not trying to frighten him … In fact, you should communicate with him and try to [be a] lifelong friend with him,” Li said.

“But this national security law means that can only give you punishment … You’re not trying to compromise anything but try to punish all the people that are saying things against the government.

Some people trying to ‘create divisions’: Consul general

Local debates on the national security law heated up after Tong Xiaoling, the Chinese consul general in Vancouver, toed Beijing’s line to criticize protesters in Hong Kong as well as in Vancouver.

In a Mandarin interview with Vancouver-based Chinese broadcaster CHMB AM 1320 on Tuesday, Tong said some people in Canada “try to create divisions in the ethnic Chinese community and sabotage China-Canada relations.”

Li disregards the Chinese diplomat’s statement, as he thinks he’s entitled to freedom of expression in Canada.

And he isn’t concerned about his own arrest by the Chinese government should he travel back to Hong Kong as much as what the young people of the region stand to lose.

“I will be more scared if the next generation in Hong Kong will not have their own freedom of speech,” he said.

Thinking of his students, Li’s voice choked up. “I really want them to have their own freedom in the future,” he said.

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