Beijing’s long reach into the Chinese diaspora and beyond has rarely been as evident as it is now.
On Monday, Twitter suspended 936 accounts, which it described as “the most active” of 200,000 accounts representing “a larger, spammy network.” The accounts originating in China were “deliberately and specifically attempting to sow political discord in Hong Kong, including undermining the legitimacy and political positions of the protest movement on the ground.”
Based on “intensive investigations, Twitter said it has “reliable evidence to support that this is a coordinated state-backed operation. Specifically, we identified large clusters of accounts behaving in a coordinated manner to amplify messages related to the Hong Kong protests.”
Based on Twitter’s findings, Facebook also shut down seven pages, three groups and seven accounts.
Fortunately, this weekend’s march by an estimated 1.7 million Hong Kongers was peaceful after several weeks of violence and alleged police brutality.
But there were rising tensions in several Canadian cities as well as Paris, London, New York City and Sydney where pro-Beijing counter-protests were hastily arranged at sites of rallies held in support of Hong Kong’s protest movement.
The counter-protests were strikingly similar with denunciations of the Hong Kong “rioters” and “traitors” and false accusations of Hong Kongers demanding independence from China. They sang the Chinese national anthem under seemingly fresh-from-the-package Chinese flags and scores of identical placards.
With their own citizens protesting in the streets — many of them of Chinese ancestry — Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Crystia Freeland and the European Union’s foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini were told to mind their own business by China. They had issued a joint statement urging restraint and condemning the “rising number of unacceptable violent incidents” in Hong Kong that might lead to “risks of further violence and instability.”
In Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto, police were busy keeping protesters and counter-protesters separated and safe.
On Saturday, social media chatter among Vancouver-based China’s supporters included boasts about bringing bricks, rocks and knives to hastily organized counter-protests that resulted in a more obvious police presence than at previous events. Whether the threats were legitimate, it’s up to the police to investigate.
Later, scores of counter-protesters gathered outside Nordstrom’s, video posted on Facebook shows one young man marching past the red flags with his arm raised in a pseudo-Nazi salute with Chinese singing in the background. The show of forced convinced the organizers of a nearby pro-Hong Kong event to cancel.
On Sunday, a convoy of flag-draped cars and some landscaping trucks that had blocked the street outside the Chinese consul general’s house on Granville Street during a rally drove to a nearby church.
There, about 80 worshippers met to pray for peace, freedom, human rights and democracy in the former British colony. Police kept the 100 or so flag-waving and red-clad demonstrators away from the church and helped escort the worshippers though the crowd when the prayers ended.
Chris Chiu, one of the prayer meeting’s organizers, called it an assault on religious freedom, freedom of assembly and freedom of expression — something protected in Canada, but absent in China.
“We definitely felt intimidated,” he said. “As far as I know this doesn’t even happen in Hong Kong. Some churches there have opened their space during protests so that people can have a rest, get first aid or some water. They’re like shelters.
“It was definitely outrageous and shocking. It makes me feel very angry and unsafe even in Canada.”
Chiu said members of Vancouver Christians for Love, Peace and Justice will be meeting later this week to talk about their future.
“Are we going to hold any prayer meeting for Hong Kong or any other causes that China doesn’t like? Do we have to think about safety? About contacting police or hiring security guards? We don’t know the answers.”
Bizarrely, there were also by noisy drive-bys of flag-draped luxury cars at protests sites in Vancouver and Toronto.
Ferraris, McLarens, Aston Martins and Porsches revved their engines and honking is intimidation on a whole different scale in cities that have been roiled by a different kind of social unrest from residents who have been priced out of the housing market and who have been rocked by a multi-billion-dollar, money-laundering scandal that’s been linked to China.
The revving of cars that cost more than many people’s homes was another ostentatious reminder of China’s economic power.
Canada and Canadians are already suffering the economic consequences of China’s retribution for cleaving to our own values and upholding the rule of law with regard to Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.
She’s under house arrest in her multi-million Vancouver home, awaiting an extradition trial, while two Canadians — Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig — have been jailed without trial in China and two others jailed in China have been condemned to death.
People in Hong Kong are in a life-and-death struggle to retain the vestiges of freedom that have made the city-state so vibrant. They are struggling to retain their own culture and customs and even the Cantonese language, which is increasingly being replaced by Mandarin.
As the Chinese government exerts ever increasing influence over other countries in Asia, Africa and in Canada, Hong Kongers are not alone in thinking that they may just be the canary in the coal mine.