As Beijing flexes its muscles, one HK politician is trying to spread Canadian values

19-Apr-2019 Intellasia | NationalPost | 6:38 AM Print This Post

Alvin Yeung absorbed liberal notions during a youth spent in Canada ideas he is now trying to disseminate in a less tolerant system

Alvin Yeung doesn’t mince words about a new Hong Kong law promoting China’s national anthem. It not only requires the city’s school children to learn and sing the song, but includes penalties of up to three years in prison for anyone who dares insult it.

“It’s crazy,” he says. “Bizarre.”

And for Yeung, the fresh-faced leader of Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy party, it’s also a stark contrast to how he was introduced to another anthem: O Canada.

As a new immigrant attending a Toronto-area private school in the mid-1990s, there were lessons about the history of the anthem and the maple-leaf flag, but delivered in typically non-threatening Canadian fashion, he recalls.

“The teachers did not have to hot sell all these ideas. It was so natural,” Yeung told the National Post recently. “The message I want to say is: Patriotism is not something you have to impose on anybody. You earn it. By learning the history, the values and how people respect each other.”

That’s just one of the liberal notions Yeung says he absorbed during a youth spent in Canada ideas he is now trying to disseminate in a political system that seems less and less tolerant of democratic values.

He had to give up his actual Canadian citizenship recently to run for office here, but an orderly Quebec independence referendum, general elections where power was transferred without force and respect for partisan differences all left their mark. There are even a couple of Pierre Trudeau-authored tomes in the bookshelf behind his desk.

“The Alvin Yeung you’re seeing today,” he says, “most of it comes from the Canadian education.”

And he’s not alone. A colleague in his Civic Party, Dennis Kwok, was born in Canada and is now part of Hong Kong’s huge Canadian expatriate population, the largest outside North America.

But in a changing Hong Kong political scene, their Canadianness seems an increasingly tough sell. As leader of the Civic Party, the 37-year-old Yeung struggles to make a mark in a legislative council (Legco) where only half the members are even elected, and the majority are Beijing loyalists.

Britain handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997 on the grounds it would be part of a one-country, two-systems arrangement, with universal suffrage promised for the future. Though it still is markedly freer than anywhere in the mainland, China is gradually trying to reshape Hong Kong’s system in its own image. Universal suffrage seems a distant dream, the chief executive the head of Hong Kong’s government still chosen by a Beijing-oriented electoral college.

A number of politicians have been barred entirely from running for the council simply because they favour an independent Hong Kong.

“Alvin Yeung as leader of CP, his job is difficult, very tough,” said Sixtus “Baggio” Leung, who was barred from taking his own elected seat in Legco two years ago because of anti-China statements. “The opposition in Hong Kong can’t do what oppositions do in other countries, because of the system.”

In his diminutive office space is at a premium everywhere here Yeung comes across as self-possessed but not arrogant, impeccably attired yet not stuffy. Outside, where his young, casually dressed staff work in even closer quarters, Lego sets are strangely ubiquitous. It turns out the boss uses the colourful building blocks as a stress reliever.

Those years at St. Andrews College, an elite boys’ boarding school in Markham, Ont., where international fees now top $68,000, seem to have produced a well-rounded lawyer-cum-politician.

Yeung was actually born in Hong Kong the son of a restaurant owner and jewellery dealer but moved with his mother to Canada in the early 1990s. Like so many others, the family worried about the city’s future in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. His father, who decided nevertheless to stay in Hong Kong, died soon after their move.

From St. Andrew’s where his interests ranged from public speaking to fencing and his nicknames included “Captain Hook” Yeung studied political science at Western University in London, Ont. He’d already witnessed an eye-opening political event: the 1996 Quebec referendum.

“To me it was a shock,” Yeung says. “What, somebody is asking to leave the country, and you don’t need to go through a war?”

But as China itself continued an historic opening up to the rest of the world and to market economics, he leapt from southwestern Ontario to Beijing, and a three-year law degree at Peking University.

Yeung says he may have gone partly out of a search for identity, but still considered himself Chinese Canadian. And he had another revelation there during the 2003 SARS outbreak. As health workers in mainland China and Taiwan seemed to run away from the new disease, Hong Kong’s doctors and nurses were fearless in the face of the lethal virus, Yeung says.

It was that kind of dedication to which he says he aspired, and that helped convince him to return to his birthplace. Ironically, he first had to obtain a law degree in the UK to practice in Hong Kong’s British-style system.

He became a barrister a courtroom lawyer but another 2003 event, Hong Kong’s mass protests against a proposed law criminalising subversion against China, drew him toward the political world.

In 2016, Yeung won a byelection for the New Territories East seat in Legco, and later that year was returned in the general election, eventually heading up the Civic Party.

But elections are just one part of Hong Kong politics, allowed for the 35 of 70 seats that represent geographic districts. The other half are called “functional constituencies” professional and economic sectors like accountancy and health services whose representatives are chosen by their members, and are predominantly pro-Beijing.

About half the elected legislators are also China-leaning, making the “pro-democracy” politicians a perennial minority, though polls indicate that more than half of Hong Kongers back them.

Leung, the legislator barred from taking his seat, said he wishes so-called “pan-democratic” parties like the Civic would be more radical, fight harder for full voting rights rather than trying to work straitjacketed within the system.

Yeung –despite a sunny, glass-half-full demeanour does not deny his hands are tied legislatively, meaning he often can do little more than act as a moral check on the government.

“It’s very difficult for us to build alliances with even the moderate conservatives. Why? Because this is not a sovereign country. At the back, behind them, there’s always the Communists,” he says. “The central liaison office, representing the central (Chinese) government, is not far from here. It takes them 10 minutes to reach here. It takes them a phone call to send their orders and instructions.”

He doesn’t favour independence for Hong Kong a position that would, regardless, get him banned from running for office here but wishes Beijing would follow the example of another Canadian prime minister, Jean Chretien, in the Quebec referendum. Instead of using legal force to win the loyalty of the city’s residents, China should “talk them through it, convince them, ask the Hong Kong people to show their love. It’s not rocket science.”

It was his own love for Hong Kong, Yeung says, that convinced him in 2012 to drop his Canadian citizenship a backdoor many like him maintain for that feared rainy day. He insists he has no regrets.

“I told my mom, she was slightly shocked: ‘You really have to give it up?’ ” he recalls. “(But) “I know it’s not really a real goodbye. It’s always here. It’s the values that matter more.”

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Category: Hong Kong

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