Hong Kong residents in Canada are coming together to assist the newest influx of refugees fleeing Beijing’s increasing grip on their city.
Networks throughout the nation, some spawned from groups formed in the aftermath of China’s 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protestors, are giving newcomers everything from employment and housing to legal and mental health assistance and even vehicle rides to the grocery store.
“We are in a battle. These are my comrades, people who share the same values,” one 38-year-old who asked to be identified only as Ho told Reuters. “Who is going to provide that helping hand if I’m not going to?”
Ho runs a cooking school near Toronto, and said he hired a former aide to a Hong Kong democratic politician to promote his business online, and recently took on a new kitchen assistant who took part in the city’s 2019 pro-democracy protests.
Ho, who moved to Canada as a teenager before Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, is only one of the people assisting the network of support groups that has emerged in Toronto, Vancouver, Calgary, and Edmonton in the last two years.
It is not unusual for immigrants to look out for one another. However, people in Canada, which has one of the world’s largest overseas concentrations of Hong Kong residents, told Reuters that the situation is urgent because many of those they are attempting to assist fear being arrested for taking part in previous protests and may not be able to afford professional help to resettle overseas.
“It’s my natural duty,” said Ho, who asked not to be identified by his full name, and did not name his new employees, for fear of problems with Hong Kong authorities. “If I was in Hong Kong, I would be in a desperate position. If there was a helping hand, I would hold onto it.”
A year ago, Beijing enacted a broad national security rule on Hong Kong, banning a wide variety of political activities and essentially ending public protests. Many pro-democracy activists and politicians have been detained under the new legislation or for protest-related offences, including renowned Beijing opponents Joshua Wong and Jimmy Lai. Many individuals have already fled the area.
The Hong Kong administration and China argue that the law is required to restore peace following the sometimes violent demonstrations of 2019, and that it protects liberties granted by Beijing when Britain returned Hong Kong to China.
“The Hong Kong national security law upholds the rights and freedoms of Hong Kong people,” said a spokesperson for Hong Kong’s Security Bureau. “Any law enforcement actions taken by Hong Kong law enforcement agencies are based on evidence, strictly according to the law, for the acts of the persons or entities concerned.”
Britain and Canada are two of the most popular destinations for people leaving Hong Kong after the imposition of the national security law.
Some 34,000 people applied to live in Britain in the first two months after the country introduced a new fast-track to residency for Hong Kongers earlier this year, according to the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, citing government data.
About a fifth of that number applied for temporary and permanent residency in Canada in the first four months of this year, according to the government. The total number of Hong Kongers going to Canada is likely larger but hard to track as many already hold Canadian passports from earlier waves of emigration.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents relocated there in the 1980s and 1990s, fearing they would lose their money and property, as well as much of their freedom, if Communist Party-ruled China regained control of the city.
However, the city flourished and retained liberties not accessible in mainland China, so many Hong Kong residents went home or maintained a foot in both countries. As China asserts its grip over Hong Kong, the newest wave of departure appears to be irreversible.
Canada loosened its restrictions on admitting Hong Kongers after the imposition of the national security law last year. It set up a new work visa programme aimed chiefly at young Hong Kongers with a degree or diploma from a post-secondary institution in the last five years, along with two pathways to permanent residency for Hong Kongers in Canada who have recently worked or completed post-secondary studies in the country.
The new coronavirus has complicated matters for new arrivals. Under Canada’s latest travel restrictions, even those who have obtained permission to live and work in Canada through the new programme are only allowed to enter the country if they have a job offer.
That’s where the support system comes in. According to Eric Li, co-founder of the Toronto Hong Kong Parent Group and former president of the Canada-Hong Kong Link, a rights advocacy organisation founded in 1997, the group has so far aided 40 people, half of whom have already secured three-year visas.
According to Li, the organisation has pushed 20 companies, including Ho’s culinary school, restaurants, a construction firm, a travel agency, and a family who hired a Cantonese teacher for their children, to recruit people arriving from Hong Kong.
The Toronto group also has interpreters, lawyers and psychotherapists on hand to help new arrivals and has 10 rooms it can provide as free, temporary accommodation. The rooms are in the members’ or their friends’ homes.
Volunteers in Calgary said they have helped at least 29 asylum seekers, picking many up from the airport and driving them to doctors’ offices, grocery stores and banks.
Canada has long had one of the largest populations of overseas Hong Kongers, some of whom came together in 2019 to hold rallies in solidarity with the protests back home.
Many of the new groups may trace their origins back to activist organisations founded in 1989 in reaction to Beijing’s assault on pro-democracy demonstrators in and around Tiananmen Square, or the 1997 handover. The organisations are already in contact with social service agencies such as Community Family Services of Ontario and the York Support Services Network, as well as churches and professionals that are eager to assist.
The Vancouver Parent Group, which was founded in 1989 by the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, has contributed more than C$80,000 ($65,963) to assist Hong Kong protestors settle in Canada with living expenses and legal bills.
Vancouver “parents” show new arrivals how to navigate public transport or get a library card, and organise donations of winter clothing or kitchenware, according to Ken Tung, one of the volunteers.
Tung said their aim is to “give them a stepping stone to move on.”
Alison, a protester who fled Hong Kong last year after many of her colleagues were detained for protesting, was among those assisted by the Calgary organisation.
She founded the Soteria Institute, named after the Greek goddess of protection and redemption, with a few other newcomers to provide free, weekly online English classes, resume-writing seminars, and emotional support.
“We understand what they’re experiencing,” said Alison, who asked to be identified by only one name. “We try to use our experience to help out more Hong Kong exiles.”