Originally on The Volcano. Republished with permission.
On Monday, October 7, a Hong Kong solidarity group at the University of British Columbia called The Enlightenment of Hong Kong (UBC-EHK) organized a protest against Hong Kong’s recently imposed Emergency Regulations Ordinance (ERO) against the use of masks in any protests. The ERO is a colonial law that allows the city’s Chief Executive the power to make “any regulations whatsoever which he may consider desirable in the public interest.” It was imposed by the British in 1922 to suppress a strike, and was last used in 1967 to suppress pro-Communist riots in the city. The ban on wearing masks carries a sentence of up to one year in prison and a fine of 25,000 HKD (4,246 CAD).
The ERO is clearly a draconian tool intended to repress protest, and should be opposed. But rather than connecting the repression that protestors in Hong Kong face to the repression that activists in Canada face, the UBC-EHK rally fixated on apparent “differences” between Canada’s anti-mask law and Hong Kong’s. The rally, in effect, defended Canada’s repressive laws because they “went through a normal legislative process in a democratically elected legislature,” according to speaker Sabrina. Sabrina concluded that the anti-mask laws in both states are incomparable because Hong Kong does not respect human rights, but Canada does.
The move to bolster Canada as a utopia of democracy and freedom in order to leverage pressure against Hong Kong only apologizes for and masks Canada’s own colonial violences and bourgeois contradictions. As important as it is to oppose the ERO, the UBC-EHK rally’s central argument is not just poorly researched and naive—it’s incoherent. Canada’s anti-mask law, which carries a penalty of up to 10 years in prison, is vaguely worded, leaving it up to cops to decide if an assembly is lawful or not—a power they exercise freely to criminalize protest. The law was introduced in 2011 in response to G20 protests in Toronto and the Occupy Movement, and passed in 2013 after the Quebec student protests of 2012, making it a tool of state oppression just like any other. And if UBC-EHK thinks that Canadian police can’t hide their identities because they’re not allowed to cover their faces, it can only be because nobody in that group has ever tried to ID a cop during a protest.
Rodney Little Mustache, an Indigenous student, took to the microphone to ask that everyone gathered at the protest recognize oppressions that Indigenous people fight in Canada. He spoke to the recent human rights tribunal ruling that found that the Canadian government discriminated against Indigenous children on reserves. Rodney asked the crowd, “While you’re doing this, take a moment of silence for the First Nations children here.” Meanwhile, rally organizers began unfurling two large Canadian flags behind him.
The move to bolster Canada as a utopia of democracy and freedom in order to leverage pressure against Hong Kong only apologizes for and masks Canada’s own colonial violences and bourgeois contradictions.
Rodney explained that he asked to speak at the rally because people “think that this is a perfect country. It’s not.” His message seemed lost, however, amidst the celebrations of Canada’s “normal legislative procedures” and “respect for human rights.”
A few meters away, a counter-protest of a dozen mainland Chinese students gathered and was periodically swarmed by obnoxious white guys mansplaining democracy and the horrors of communism. When I asked the students why they didn’t support the Hong Kong protests, they said they opposed protestors’ violence and supported the Hong Kong police. While they were initially very defensive, it was seemingly from a place of feeling the need to defend China from critiques that buttress and naturalize Western imperial power. Once I explained that my support of the Hong Kong protests, and my critiques of China, came from within a Chinese socialist lineage that was also critical of Western states, we were able to have a lively discussion about politics and economics.
The UBC-EHK pamphlet argues that Canadians should care about the protests in Hong Kong because this is “a country where we hold freedom and democracy as our principles.” But in a Western imperial nation like Canada, “freedom” and “democracy” take for granted capitalism and colonialism. To tether support to Hong Kong protestors with support for the Canadian state means abandoning solidarity with Indigenous people who constantly face criminalization and repression, and it means naturalizing the myth that working-class people can access democracy within a system founded on their exploitation.
UBC-EHK’s myopic framework sidesteps the hard and necessary work of mapping out the material grounds for solidarity with the movement in Hong Kong. Rather than looking around for activists in Canada that similarly face state repression, they instead rely on a fantasy of freedom and democracy that covers up Canada’s genocidal violence, both here on Turtle Island and abroad. But the Chinese and Canadian states do not need one another as foils in order for their hypocrisies and violences to be exposed, because they are part of a global system. The basis of solidarity with Hong Kong must instead rely upon a strong, anti-imperialist lens—one that opposes rising Sinophobia and Yellow Peril discourse while simultaneously advocating for the protection and expansion of rights and freedoms for working-class people in Hong Kong and mainland China.