Day 6

Counter-protests against pro-Hong Kong demonstrators may reflect Chinese state influence

Last weekend, pro-Hong Kong demonstrators clashed with counter-protesters in a series of tense altercations across Canada — and around the world. UBC professor Leo Shin says the rise of the counter-protest movement in Canada bears the hallmarks of Chinese state influence.

'Many of them genuinely believe in this sense of nationalism,' says UBC associate professor Leo Shin

Pro-China counter-protesters, wearing red, shout down a man in a black shirt during an anti-extradition rally for Hong Kong in Vancouver on Aug. 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)
Listen11:02

As pro-democracy protests in support of Hong Kong spread around the world, pro-China counter-protesters are stepping up — and according to Chinese history expert Leo Shin, it's because both sides recognize the importance of shaping the West's opinion.

"There's a greater sense of awareness on the part of the Chinese state, and also among the Chinese population in general, that public opinions matter — and public opinions in the West matter," Shin told Day 6 host Brent Bambury.

While Shin, a University of British Columbia professor, says it's hard to trace the counter-protests back to Beijing, they have the hallmarks of Chinese state influence.

The influence is indirect, he says, adding that misinformation about the demonstrations is being spread through social media, and that consuls across the country work to ensure a strong connection with Chinese communities.

Protesters hold hands to form a human chain during a rally to call for political reforms in Hong Kong's Central district on Aug. 23, 2019. (Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters)

Last August, the Communist Party of China's Central Committee called on Chinese emigrants overseas "to remember the call from the Party and the people, spread China's voice," and "promote Chinese culture."

"It doesn't have to be a direct hand from the Chinese state, but it is through the propaganda, through the population in general," Shin said.

Earlier this week, social media companies Facebook, Twitter and YouTube said they removed thousands of accounts linked to China intended to undermine protests in Hong Kong. 

According to Shin, the counter-protests are cropping up now because Beijing is recognizing that the protests in Hong Kong, which are entering their 12th consecutive week, aren't going away.

"The recent protests are remarkable in their longevity," Shin said. 

The protests started in response to a now-suspended extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong's government to send residents to mainland China to face criminal charges.

Confrontations across the country

At protests across Canada last weekend, Hong Kong supporters clashed with demonstrators delivering messages in support of Beijing. 

Last weekend's demonstration at Old City Hall in Toronto was the first time Simon Fung saw counter protesters, who chanted "Hong Kong belongs to China" and waved Chinese flags.

Fung, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to Canada more than two decades ago, has been supporting pro-Hong Kong demonstrators since June. 

Pro-China counter-protesters react during an anti-extradition rally for Hong Kong in Vancouver on Aug. 17, 2019. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

"The counter-protesters got right in front of us at the monuments ... holding their flags and yelling a lot of things and pretty quickly there were some people from our side who were at the front closest to them," he told Day 6.

A similar scene took place in Halifax, according to local organizer Joshua Wong where he estimates 60 to 70 counter-protests confronted him and six other Hong Kong supporters.

While Wong says it was relatively peaceful, the counter-protesters sang China's national anthem and chanted "One China policy, under which Hong Kong exists.

Similar protests took place in Vancouver and Calgary, as well as cities around the world including New York, London, Paris and Sydney.

Stoking national pride

In an interview with CBC News, Victor Feng explained that he joined counter-protests in Vancouver to support China due to national pride for his home country.

"Anyone who is Chinese should be proud of their heritage," he said. "Certainly I am one of those."

Feng says that as a sovereign country, China has the right to design any legal system it wants. He adds that he's not against democracy in Hong Kong or the region as a distinct territory.

According to Shin, counter-protesters may see challenging Hong Kong's government as a direct threat to the Communist Party and, in turn, a threat to the "One China" policy.

Demonstrators wear patches in remembrance of a woman who suffered an eye injury in a previous demonstration in Hong Kong on Aug. 23, 2019. (Vincent Yu/Associated Press)

Shin says that cultivating a sense of nationalism to Chinese citizens outside the country provides greater support for the ruling party.

Encouraging national pride has been key for the Communist Party of China since the 1990s, he explained, when China became an economic and political powerhouse internationally.

"So when we talk about the protesters on the street — the counter-protesters on the street — we shouldn't simply think of them as agents of the state," Shin said. 

"Many of them genuinely believe in this sense of nationalism — a sense of Chinese pride."