‘What am I protesting? What am I doing here?’ How one young woman says she got roped into protesting at the Meng Wanzhou trial

People holding signs that purport to show their support for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou stand outside the courthouse as she arrives for the first day of her extradition trial on January 20, 2020 in Vancouver.

VANCOUVER—Ken Bonson was nearing the end of her graveyard shift early Monday morning when she got a call from a friend with an offer to make some quick cash.

Bonson, who does packaging in a warehouse, said the details from her friend were sparse — something to do with a protest.

“I was told all I had to do was spare an hour of my time and hold a sign. Easy, right? I’m 20 and moved out recently, so $150 can go a long way,” she recalled Tuesday.

“I had no idea what I was going into.”

Within a matter of hours, she and her cohorts were thrust into the spotlight — a curious sideshow to the start of one of the most highly anticipated and high-profile cases to land in B.C. Supreme Court: The extradition trial of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is wanted in the U.S. on fraud charges.

The sight of more than a dozen young men and women carrying placards outside the downtown courthouse reading “Free Ms. Meng” and “Equal Justice” prompted immediate speculation on Twitter about who these protesters were and whether they were being paid.

The speculation only mounted when the protesters declined to answer reporters’ questions.

Kang Zhang, 70, who was among several anti-Chinese government/anti-Huawei protesters at the courthouse, said he, too, was suspicious of the young adults who had showed up with protest signs.

Zhang, who immigrated to Vancouver from Shanghai in 1990 after the Tiananmen Square massacre, said he couldn’t help but wonder if they were somehow paid by people working for the Chinese government.

He offered no proof, but the idea that the Chinese Communist Party pays people to spread pro-Chinese government messages is a common fear and trope among some immigrants who fled the country.

“The CCP always does that, they pay people,” Zhang said.

The Chinese consulate-general did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Reached by phone Tuesday morning, Bonson told the Star she was still fuzzy on the details of who had actually co-ordinated the recruitment of the protesters. But if she had to do it all over again, she wouldn’t — “not for a million dollars.”

“I’m honestly pretty ashamed and embarrassed and wish I never went,” she said. “I want this to be something I can put behind me.”

Bonson said when her friend called her, she asked what they were protesting and he said something about “Free Ms. Meng.” The name didn’t register. She had never heard of the Huawei executive, the allegations against her or the company she worked for.

After finishing her shift, she met her friend and a few other people she said he had enlisted at a Starbucks near the courthouse around 8:30 a.m.

They then walked over to the courthouse where they saw a handful of other protesters holding red poster board. Inside the courthouse lobby, they met a woman named “Joey.”

“She shook our hands. She didn’t really say anything. She had a straight face,” Bonson recalled.

The woman briefly walked away and returned with a few more red posters for the group. Some additional impromptu signs were written on white sheets of paper.

“She never directly gave us instructions,” Bonson said. “It was my friend telling our group what to do.”

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The Star reached out to the friend for comment but did not get a response.

The protesters, Bonson said, were caught off-guard when reporters started questioning them.

“We did not expect the outcome of reporters, camera crews. I just worked a 12 hour shift, I was not prepared to do any of that yesterday,” she said.

She recalled thinking to herself at one point: “What am I protesting? What am I doing here?”

After the protest was over, Bonson said she entered Meng’s name into Google. A friend who was up on the case also gave her the lowdown over the phone. That’s when things started to come into focus.

“I f’ed up, I made a mistake,” she said. “I was just being really ignorant. I should’ve researched, I should’ve done more research on what I was going in for. It just seemed like it was an easy $150.”

And so when she received an e-transfer from her friend a couple hours later for the $150 (Bonson shared a screenshot of the direct deposit with the Star), she said she told her partner that he could have the money.

“I don’t want it. I don’t feel right about it,” she said. To accept it, would go “against everything that I would ever feel right about.”

Bonson said the protesters were offered another $150 to show up Friday.

“I obviously will not be attending.”

Zhang, however, plans to be there every day this week. Wearing a sash that reads, “Strong demand that Men(g) Wanzhou be escorted to the United States for trial,” he believes Meng should be extradited because he says people shouldn’t get away with committing a crime.

“I am here for myself, my family, and my friends, and for Canadians,” he said, standing in front of the courthouse Tuesday. “We have freedom here. We have to say — this, you can’t do.”

Doug Quan is a reporter for the Toronto Star based in Vancouver. Follow him on Twitter: @dougquan

Wanyee Li

Wanyee Li is a reporter for the Toronto Star based in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii

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