'People are actually scared': Hong Kongers in Canada watch nervously as tensions simmer back home

With tensions simmering in Hong Kong, people in Canada who have connections there are watching nervously as pro-democracy protesters take to the streets to resist what they fear is the tightening grip of the Chinese government.

Some of the thousands of Hong Kongers here are banding together to organize shows of support for protesters

Mimi Lee stands with a Lennon Wall she set up outside Toronto's Union Station in June to show support for demonstrators in Hong Kong. (CBC)

With tensions simmering in Hong Kong, people in Canada who have connections there are watching nervously as pro-democracy protesters take to the streets to resist what they fear is the tightening grip of the Chinese government.

Canada is home to thousands of people of Hong Kong descent, with some expressing feeling helpless as they watch police and protesters clash.

Some, however, are expressing solidarity with the protesters through rallies and demonstrations half a world away. 

"That's not the Hong Kong that we grew up with," said Mimi Lee in Toronto.

"Police should be protecting citizens and now they are not. People are actually scared when they see the police come in. How can you imagine any society can live their lives with that kind of situation?"

'Tried to stay away from police'

CBC Toronto spoke to one man, agreeing not to identify him over concerns for his safety, who has also been organizing shows of support in Toronto.

Asked to be called Kevin, he said he recently returned from Hong Kong, where he was among millions who marched in the streets in recent weeks, with police often responding with rubber bullets. 
This Toronto man did not want to identify himself for fear his family in Hong Kong will be put in danger. He says amid the turmoil, friends and family are looking for ways out. (Greg Bruce/CBC)

"I tried to stay away from police as much as possible, at least 100 metres away, because I was afraid," he said. "A lot of times, I think they're hurting people on purpose."

The protests were sparked by the Hong Kong government's efforts to push through an extradition bill.

Kevin, who has lived in Toronto for more than 15 years, is concerned the bill will erode freedoms there, making it easier for local authorities to detain and extradite people to China. 

The city government has suspended that legislation, but demonstrators pushing for the full revocation of the bill converged Monday on Hong Kong's international airport, where flights were cancelled for a second day on Tuesday.

The central government responded, characterizing the protest movement as something approaching "terrorism" that poses an "existential threat" to the local citizenry, worrying many observers who believe those comments are a sign Beijing could be laying the groundwork for a much more violent crackdown.

Not all in Canada supportive

But shutting down the airport is a step protesters had to take, says Kevin, to make their voices heard. 

"I think the protesters have tried a lot of different things. You know, first by going peaceful march — you know, rallies, right — and that had no effect. And so they and some of the younger ones go, you know, 'Be more aggressive surrounding the Legislative Council and stop the bill,'" he said. 
"This is just another way to cause disruption, to get the government to actually back off."
A passenger walks past anti-government protesters sitting on the floor in front of security gates during a demonstration at Hong Kong Airport on Tuesday. (Issei Kato/Reuters)

The protesters' demands are five-fold, he said: repeal the extradition bill, drop charges against protesters, stop classifying the demonstrators as rioters, universal suffrage and an independent investigation into the police. 

But as much as there is a show of solidarity, not all people in Canada who have Hong Kong ties are supportive.

"Within my own family, aunts in Hong Kong that visited, one supported the students, another supported the government," said author and freelance journalist Kevin Chong. 

The Toronto man who spoke to CBC News noticed that too, saying older or more well-off people from Hong Kong can be less supportive.

"They think the protest is actually ruining Hong Kong instead of fighting for their future. It's kind of sad actually." 

'A peaceful message'

Now that he's back home, Kevin is working with other Hong Kongers to organize demonstrations here, including a solidarity march in Toronto over the weekend. 

"We want to send a peaceful message. This is a peaceful demonstration. We want to also show global solidarity, you know, because this is not just a rally in Toronto but also in many other cities in Canada, as well in overseas."

It's not lost on Kevin that he has the freedom to demonstrate here. His family back home has been reminding him of that, he said, especially lately.

"I mean, they all tell me that I'm very lucky that I moved to Canada. A lot of them, a lot of my friends, are actually asking how to apply for immigration."


With files from The Associated Press