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Former Ontario Liberal cabinet minister headlines pro-Beijing rally near Toronto

 Former Ontario Liberal trade minister Michael Chan in 2013.
Former Ontario Liberal trade minister Michael Chan in 2013. - Ernest Doroszuk/Postmedia/File

As protesters continued to surge through the streets of Hong Kong to press for greater freedoms, a former Canadian cabinet member offered a much different viewpoint — just outside Toronto.

Michael Chan, Ontario’s Liberal trade minister until last year, was a keynote speaker as scores of Chinese Canadians rallied in support of Beijing and the largely non-democratic Hong Kong administration.

“Unity is better than violence,” Chan proclaimed. “We support Hong Kong’s police strictly handling unrest, Hong Kong’s government carefully defending the rule of law, China’s government carefully observing Hong Kong,”

The event Chan headlined was part of what appears to be a worldwide effort to rally the Chinese diaspora against the Hong Kong demonstrators, whose prolonged, mass movement has offered a surprising challenge to Beijing.

In downtown Toronto on Saturday, a parade of Ferraris, Lamborghinis and other super cars driven by China supporters waving People’s Republic flags contributed to a noisy — if bizarre — counter protest, as backers of the Hong Kong democracy advocates struggled to be heard.

Similar clashes have occurred in Australia and Vancouver, where on Sunday China loyalists surrounded a church holding a prayer session for the Hong Kong demonstrators.

They come as Chinese President Xi Jinping expands the role of the United Front Work Department, a party offshoot whose mission includes influencing ethnic Chinese and political elites in foreign countries.

There is no direct evidence that Chinese officials are behind the various pro-Beijing activities, but critics of the regime argue their fingerprints are everywhere.

“I definitely, 100 per cent believe these kind of actions are organized by the Chinese communist regime in Beijing,” says Sheng Xue, a prominent Toronto-based journalist and activist.

And the opposing demonstrations indicate the Chinese-Canadian community is far from united in defence of Hong Kong’s China-backed government.

Many of those in the Toronto and Vancouver counter–protests appeared to be visiting mainland Chinese students — one of whom said on social media he was prepared to be deported if necessary — while some at the rally with Chan were paid $100 to attend, according to one community source.

Those supporting the protesters are predominately from Hong Kong, and take to the streets free of any government support, argued Gloria Fung, whose Hong Kong-Canada Link group held the Toronto demonstration.

“We came forward spontaneously, without any vested interest,” she said.

But an organizer of the Toronto counter-protest said he had no backing from the local consulate, and was simply reacting to violence perpetrated by Hong Kong “seditionists.” Excerpts of posts from his group on the Chinese-owned WeChat site were obtained by the National Post.

“Comrades, we have a five thousand year history of honouring our ancestors, pride in our people, unbreakable spirit and I hope everyone can turn out,” said the organizer, calling himself TonY. “We are unlike the Hong Kong seditionists, we don’t have any hidden hand behind us, we have no leaders. All we have are patriotic hearts and patriotic integrity moving us forward.”

In the same WeChat group, a user named Biubiu says before the counter-protest that “We’ve all made preparations to get deported.” Another, called Shele, adds “For country … for party … Always prepared to sacrifice for Communism.”

The protests in Hong Kong have repeatedly seen a million or more people take to the streets over the past 11 weeks. The rallies started as a reaction to a proposed law allowing extradition from the enclave to mainland China, but have expanded to also decry police brutality, and call for democratic reform.

While most of the demonstrations have been peaceful, China and its supporters have seized on those that became violent.

In fact, an unsigned Chinese-language memo circulating on social media offers talking points for people living in foreign countries, said Fung, who believes it is a Communist document. Among other points, the note suggests portraying the protests as a struggle between patriots and separatists, peace and violence and the rule of law and rioting, she said.

Perhaps the strangest manifestation of the pro-China position came on Saturday in Toronto, when several supporters of the Chinese Communist Party showed up in high-priced sports cars, revving their engines as the pro-democracy rally unfolded.

They seemed to be saying “I have money, but I am ‘patriotic. I’m loyal to China,’ ” said Fenella Sung of the group Canadian Friends of Hong Kong. ” ‘We can just roll over you.’ That’s the message.”

According to Chinese-language media reports, the event Chan spoke at on Aug. 12 in Markham, Ont., was partly organized by the Toronto Confederation of Chinese Canadian Organizations, a group that has often worked closely with Beijing’s local consulate.

Coverage of the Aug. 12 event at Markham’s King Square mall includes photographs of a number of Chinese-Canadian organizations, including a purported Tibetan group that Tibetan-community leaders say is essentially a Beijing front.

One source in the Toronto-area Chinese-Canadian community says members of a seniors group were each paid $100 to attend the rally, something the Post could not confirm independently.

Chan’s speech described Hong Kong’s growth from a fishing village to a powerful international business and trade centre, before urging authorities there to take a firm hand with the protests.

Sung said his presence at the event suggests a lack of respect for basic Canadian values of freedom and democracy.

The former Liberal MPP, who resigned before last year’s Ontario election and is now a business adviser for the Miller Thomson law firm, could not be reached for comment.

Reports before the event suggested that Han Dong, another former MPP who is running for the federal Liberal nomination in Don Valley North riding, would also attend. But Dong later issued a statement saying neither he nor anyone on his team was there.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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