Melbourne-based public health student Edwin Kwong is thousands of miles from Hong Kong, but he said his life has changed since his hometown descended into near-constant protest 11 weeks ago.
Kwong now avoids contentious political talk at his university because he’s worried it will make him a target for Mandarin-speaking students from the mainland. And after he attended a rally on campus last week, photos of his fellow pro-democracy protesters at another Melbourne campus were posted on a WeChat group that supports Beijing’s rule, identifying them as “poisonous” separatists.
“It’s pretty dark,” Kwong said, noting he was also followed and photographed while at the rally. His concerns show the heated tensions that have erupted in Hong Kong are also bubbling away among an increasingly fractured Chinese diaspora.
Pro-democracy protests took place in at least two Australian cities on Friday evening. Both were interrupted by China supporters clashing with pro-Hong Kong protesters in Sydney and Melbourne, launching a weekend of global protests that will include vigils in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Japan under the banner “Global Solidarity With Hong Kong.” Meanwhile, pro-China rallies are being organized in Sydney on Saturday, where boards hosting messages in support of independence campaigners have been vandalized.
So far, the violent scenes that have played out almost daily in Hong Kong -- fueling anxiety over the possibility of military intervention by President Xi Jinping -- have been avoided elsewhere. Yet heated exchanges on university campuses in Australia, New Zealand and Canada have led to accusations that Beijing may be attempting to stoke nationalist sentiment beyond its borders.
“A lot of people from mainland China who live abroad, including students, are angry about what’s going on in Hong Kong, and it’s not surprising they’re clashing with pro-democracy supporters,” said Ben Bland, a director at Sydney-based think tank the Lowy Institute and author of “Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow.” “If the situation in Hong Kong continues to get more heated, it will inevitably get more difficult for universities and governments to manage those tensions.”
At a university campus in Brisbane last month, protesters from both sides hurled verbal abuse at each other and punches were thrown. After China’s consul general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, stated his support of “the spontaneous patriotic behavior of Chinese students,” Foreign Minister Marise Payne warned that overseas diplomats shouldn’t encourage “disruptive or potentially violent behavior.”
Supporters of the Hong Kong protests posting notes at the University of Queensland in Brisbane on Aug. 9.
A similar scenario played out in New Zealand. After pro-Beijing students clashed with supporters of the Hong Kong protesters at the University of Auckland, the Chinese consulate said pro-democracy demonstrators were “demonizing the images of China” and “inciting anti-China sentiment.”
The Auckland campus has also seen vandals deface its “Lennon Wall,” a local version of the pro-democracy message boards that have popped up all over Hong Kong. Sydney’s version in the central business district has been removed.
At Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University, attacks on its Lennon Wall have seen activists create a mobile billboard that’s monitored by day and rolled away at night, Sylvia Ceacero, the student society’s executive director, said by phone on Wednesday.
Tensions among the diaspora have increased in recent years in Vancouver, a city where one in five have Chinese heritage. There are divisions between the Cantonese-speaking population -- many of whom fled Hong Kong ahead of the 1997 handover from the U.K. to China -- and the mainland-based, predominantly Mandarin-speaking migrants and students who have more recently arrived.
Hong Kong’s now-suspended extradition bill, which sparked the city’s protests, isn’t an abstract threat for many Canadians. An estimated 300,000 Hong Kong residents hold Canadian citizenship -- a survey in 2011 showed that nearly 8% of Hong Kong households have at least one Canadian citizen over the age of 18.
The prospect that such Canadians could potentially be handed over to China has prompted alarm, especially given the fate of two Canadians presently in Beijing’s custody. Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor have spent eight months in a jail with only a handful of consular visits, their detention widely seen as a tit-for-tat reprisal for Canada’s arrest of a Huawei Technologies Co. executive on a U.S. extradition request.
Huawei has also sat at the center of controversy in Australia, with Beijing angered after the government banned the state-linked company from building its 5G network.
The most China-dependent developed economy and a key ally of the U.S., Australia last year legislated anti-foreign interference laws designed to restrict Beijing’s meddling in its government, media and universities. Australia hosts more than 250,000 Chinese students, who make up about 29% of the total international-student intake in an industry that reaped almost $24 billion last year.
One of those is Rick Han, a 29-year-old finance student in Melbourne who hails from Shandong province. While he rejected violence, he said he identified with fellow mainlanders living in Australia who have rallied against the “arrogance” of some pro-democracy campaigners from Hong Kong.
“Because I am Chinese, I understand their feelings,” Han said. “Chinese people, especially our generation, what we don’t want to see is that China splits into different countries,” Han said.
Beyond the nation’s universities, China’s role is Australia is under scrutiny.
The Communist Party’s United Front -- a collection of affiliated parties and overseas influence groups -- has been accused of seeking to sway public opinion in Australia. Meanwhile, the Sydney Morning Herald reported this month that a China-based mother of one of the protesters who attended the Brisbane rally received a warning from officials that her son shouldn’t engage in “anti-China rhetoric.”
Jane Golley, an economist and director of the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World in Canberra, said while it was evident the tensions in Hong Kong had spread globally, the right to protest remained fundamental for Western universities.
“There are bigger things to be concerned about than a number of Chinese students protesting at Australian universities,” Golley said, adding that the Brisbane student’s report of being warned through his mother was a “repression of freedom that makes me nervous.”
This article was originally published on Bloomberg.
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