Pro-Hong Kong protesters clashed with supporters of China’s Communist government in the heart of downtown Toronto on Saturday.
The two groups — each numbering in the hundreds and almost equally matched in size — shouted at each other across a divide in front of Old City Hall in the late afternoon sun. The standoff followed a week in which thousands of protesters clashed with police in Hong Kong and forced a shutdown of the territory’s airport. Another major pro-democracy protest is planned for Sunday in Hong Kong.
Protests have escalated this summer over an extradition bill introduced in Hong Kong’s legislature that would allow the government to send those accused of crimes to mainland China. Since then, the protests have grown in size and widened to include concerns about other democratic freedoms and Hong Kong’s autonomy. Protesters have also demanded an investigation of local police for accusations of excessive force used against demonstrators.
In Toronto, protesters shouted “Freedom!” at those waving the five-starred Chinese flag, who were holding signs with messages such as “Shame on rioters!”
Sisters Sharon and Shirlet Chan, who were born in Hong Kong, said they are against the extradition bill and have been devastated to watch protesters in their native city be attacked by police.
“We’re in solidarity with everyone in Hong Kong. We wish we could be there, but we’re doing the most we can while we’re here,” Sharon told the Star. “It’s very upsetting. Personally, I feel very emotionally attached to the situation because we’re both from there. It’s our home.”
The women said citizens in Hong Kong peacefully pushed back against the extradition bill, but are now responding to police tactics.
“People are angry and the want to fight back,” Sharon said.
Shirlet Chan said she didn’t understand what pro-government supporters on Saturday were seeking.
“It’s called one country, two systems,” she said, referring to the principle underpinning Hong Kong’s reunification with China.
“It’s always been like that since 1997,” she said. “This has nothing to do with them. Whatever happens to Hong Kong doesn’t impact them.”
There is a fear, the sisters said, that with the erosion of certain freedoms, Hong Kong will not be the place they remember.
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Bernadette Luong said she moved to Canada from Hong Kong in 1997, two days before the city’s handover from British rule to Chinese control — with an agreement to preserve its semi-autonomous status until at least 2047.
Though not born in Hong Kong, she has gratitude for her adopted city, Luong said. The news of recent clashes, which she says has been manipulated by Chinese state media, made her want to stand with protesters on Saturday.
“If I stayed in Hong Kong now I would be suffering,” she said, adding that as a woman in her 60s, she worries about younger people in her former home. “So, we fight for our next generation.”
Several young pro-government supporters outside a Toronto courthouse on Saturday told the Star that the pro-Hong Kong protesters were “lying” and need to “get the facts straight,” accusing them of consuming “biased news.” One woman said the protests are scaring other peaceful citizens living in Hong Kong and that it was no longer safe to visit.
All of the pro-government protesters who spoke to the Star refused to give their names. One woman started to tell the Star she was there to support her country, but was approached by another woman who demanded this reporter delete the recording (The Star did not comply.)
The protest in Toronto was largely peaceful, with several isolated incidents of shoving between the two groups.
In a joint statement Saturday with her European Union counterpart, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland condemned the ongoing violence in Hong Kong.
The statement said both Canada and the EU support Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” within China, as well as its residents’ right to peaceful assembly, but urged restraint as violent incidents escalate.
Demonstrations in Hong Kong were largely peaceful on Saturday, though the New York Times reported minor skirmishes between demonstrators and police.
With a file from The Canadian Press
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags