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Feature: Local activists confront China’s human rights

Community silent, if not divided, on China

Richmond’s Chinese-Canadian community and civic leaders ought to speak out more against China’s human rights abuses, or risk that country’s corrupt political culture and business practices seeping into our society. 

That was the message many pro-democracy advocates were championing as they hosted formerly kidnapped and detained bookseller, turned human rights activist, Lam Wing-kee, last week.

Meanwhile, business ties between Canada and China continue to grow at the urging of Canadian politicians and corporations. 

Economic ties with China and speaking out against its government’s persistent human rights violations are not mutually exclusive, Lam told the Richmond News, via a translator, at Thompson community centre.

“They can go hand in hand,” said Lam.

With its high rate of immigrants from China making ethnic Chinese the visible majority, Richmond is uniquely positioned to witness how an increasingly-established Chinese diaspora will address the rising soft and hard power tactics of Communist China that, if unchecked, are certain to conflict with domestic values, interests and practices, according to social activist and former broadcaster Fenella Sung, of Friends of Hong Kong.

The question, however, is whether the local Chinese community, on the whole, is up to the task — and there are various reasons why it may or may not be.

lam wing kee
Lam Wing-kee became a social activist for human rights in China after being kidnapped and imprisoned by Chinese officials, in 2015, for selling books. Photo by South China Morning Post

Lam was visiting Richmond after speaking to a U.S. congressional hearing in Washington, DC. In late 2015, he said he was kidnapped by Chinese officials from nearby his home in Hong Kong, where he operated a bookstore known to sell books that criticized the Chinese government. He is one of five persons from Causeway Bay Books to have disappeared. After months of what he describes as endless interrogations without charges, nor contact with his family, he signed a “confession” and was later released, in June 2016. 

“Undoubtedly, the whole affair shows that the Chinese government tries to restrain the freedom of speech and freedom of publication in Hong Kong,” explained Lam.

“The fundamental problem is the [political] culture of China is flawed. That allows an authoritarian regime to last so long,” said Lam.

The kidnappings were seen as a blow against Hong Kong’s democratic government under the one country, two systems policy.

China’s growing crackdown on free speech and a free press has many Chinese-Canadian pro-democracy advocates, such as Sung, worried about a trickle-down effect on Canadian communities with large ethnic Chinese populations, such as Richmond.

But while Sung may be outspoken, many others, particularly newer immigrants from Mainland China, are not — and this is troubling to her.

Kenny Chiu, a past Conservative Party of Canada candidate for Steveston-Richmond East, hosts a weekly radio show on Sino-Canadian politics. Chiu told the News, “there is very little criticism that is directed to China from the Chinese community from the radio and TV shows that I notice.”

Some immigrants, said Chiu, still have ties in China that they are unwilling to let go, as China does not allow dual citizenship.

“The first gate many of these immigrants from China have to go through, it’s to decide whether they want to sign up as a Canadian. . . I don’t have any statistics, but I believe many are holding their maple leaf cards even though they’ve lived here for many years, because they’re not willing to give up their Chinese citizenship.”

Others view the Chinese government favourably — particularly newer, wealthy immigrants.

“They are confident. They are well-off. In a sense, it’s by design because Canada’s immigration system is very selective. We only pick the cream of the crop . . . But these people are also very confident of their motherland,” explained Chiu.

This, said Chiu, is because there’s a feeling among some to defend the motherland, which has, despite its problems, done well to lift itself out of a third-world state. And many see it as hypocritical for the West to admonish China, given its own human rights record last century, explained Chiu.

Mainland Chinese immigrants may become reclusive after being “challenged by a new culture,” said Chiu. Additionally, they are not accustomed to democracy, be it voting or criticizing the government (unlike the Hong Kong and Taiwan diasporas).

And yet others, who may be less sympathetic to the motherland, fear retribution by the state if they speak out.

“I hear concerns that whatever they say here can be reported or monitored (by the Chinese government) and it hurts their business back home. Now, whether that’s true or not...,” said Chiu.

This silence sparks concern for Chiu that powerful, undemocratic influences will continue to alter the local political culture, as well as the business community.

“As China becomes more confident, it will assert the way it does business,” he argued, noting cases such as the recent alleged extrajudicial jailing of Canadian John Chang, owner of Lulu Island Winery, is a sign of things to come.

Kenny Chiu
Above, Lam WIng-Kee, centre, speaks to Richmond Conservative politician Kenny Chiu about the importance of advocating for free speech and democratic values in China. Chiu is among the most vocal local critics of the Communist regime, having grown up in Hong Kong in a family that escaped from Mainland China during the Cultural Revoluton. Photo submitted

Chiu said, “the only light at the end of the tunnel” he sees, is if new Chinese-Canadians speak out. As well, he is an advocate of the Canadian government engaging diplomatically with China on human rights.

But Sung is concerned a powerful complex has developed between pro-China forces, the real estate industry and local politicians keen on promoting a healthy economy, however flawed as it may be.

Sung argues because the local and provincial economy has become so dependent on real estate (transfer taxes, construction jobs), politicians are becoming beholden to this foreign influence. Political donations from the pro-China lobby serve to further silence criticism of the Chinese government and prop up its soft power.

“Some of them don’t even live here and they have influence on our public policy. You think that’s fair? I firmly believe that’s not fair. And that’s not justice. That’s not a Canadian society I want to see,” argued Sung.

“Why would Canada allow dirty money to come in, without questioning the source of it? And also allow those people that have shown those kinds of behaviours in the past, once they enter Canada, to allow them to shed their past and say, ‘Hey we forget about the past, we start a new life again.’ That’s not an ideal situation. The worse situation is those people still maintain their ties in China and still undertake those sort of prejudices, without us knowing, and then squeeze out day to day, hard-working tax-paying Canadian citizens,” argued Sung.

“If we don’t speak out against those practices, they will become the norm because they think there is no negative consequence if I take this route. It’s a slippery slope,” she said.

Lam said what is occurring here and around the world is the “the export of a corrupted culture.” 

Activist Louis Huang, of Surrey, who works in Richmond, protested a pro-Mao event last September in Richmond.

“It’s a matter of fact that the Chinese government violates human rights. It’s a long history. And this issue is getting worse in the last few years,” explained Huang.

He believes China is sending “agents” to Canada to meddle in local politics and the Chinese community in Richmond.

“In our Chinese community, everyone knows this. They are close friends to the Consulate General. There is tons of money being spent to influence local politicians,” said Huang.

“This is a threat to Canada and a threat to our community, our culture and our institutions,” said Huang.

The Alliance of the Guard of Canadian Values, led by Loius Huang, far right, protested outside Stage One Academy in Richmond, where other ethnic Chinese groups were hosting a concert to mark the 40th anniversary of the death of former Chinese leader Chairman Mao. - submitted. September 2016.

While Huang has no explicit proof (“You’ll never see it but behind them is the shadow of the Chinese government”), Canadian intelligence officials (CSIS) and whistleblowers have reportedly raised similar concerns.

Huang said foreign money pouring into real estate is another attempt to “buy influence.”

However, Huang is seeing signs of progress.

“We have seen the number of people supporting us grow and grow. . . As long as they see a voice in the Chinese community, this will give them confidence to speak out.”

And yet local politicians who speak out against China’s human rights and anti-democratic values are still few and far between, with Chiu being an exception, said Sung.

In fact, one incident, last October, where Richmond-Steveston MP Joe Peschisolido wore a Communist red scarf and helped raise China’s flag at Vancouver City Hall while standing next to Consulate General Liu Fei, represents, at the least, an error in judgement and at most, a calculated political move to side with pro-China forces. Chiu believes the latter, while Peschisolido said it was the former.

Peschisolido told the News he agrees with Lam’s premise that human rights and economic ties are not mutually exclusive.

“As our relationship becomes more stable and interrelated, you can have a more frank discussion,” he said.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie has also attended several pro Communist China events, including with Liu, explaining that he is there on behalf of Chinese immigrants who live in Richmond.

Such events are rarely publicized to mainstream media, as they are only intended for their target audience, noted Sung.

Notably, Huang and Chiu both believe Liu overstepped boundaries when she criticized the new provincial foreign home buyers’ tax — another signal of China’s emboldened hand.

Although, Peschisolido noted Canada is a free country and Liu “has her views,” that were met with strong reaction.

Regarding the tax, Huang was asked why it was implemented if he believes politicians are too beholden to Chinese influence. He said the BC Liberals were pressured to change only by an outraged public that was impossible to ignore.

“No government is willing to do things unless they are pushed,” concurred Sung.