Pro-China counter-protesters, wearing red, shout down a man in a black shirt during a rally for Hong Kong in Vancouver in August 2019. The University of British Columbia is taking measures to enhance respectful dialogue over Hong Kong divisions. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

Can we talk? Bridging campus divides over Hong Kong

Canada-China relations are bleak, to put it mildly. The diplomatic tensions have extended to Chinese communities in Vancouver, but is there hope on the horizon?

Our research shows promising solutions are already emerging.

Global power dynamics are said to be shifting towards the east.

But domestically, the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, has been confronting mass civil unrest in Hong Kong while facing international scrutiny for the government’s “re-education” centres for Muslims in Xinjiang province.


Read more: The ominous metaphors of China's Uighur concentration camps


Meanwhile, Canadian media has been criticized for propagating Western-centric rhetoric, often misleading the public and unfairly polarizing contentious issues.

Some news outlets have reported a rise in anti-immigrant sentiment in the wake of escalating bilateral tensions. These concerns have been heightened in the face of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.


Read more: Coronavirus: The latest disease to fuel mistrust, fear and racism


These challenges continue to affect people living in Canada, including students at the University of British Columbia.

Divisive politics and polarized ideologies are fuelling an atmosphere of reproachful disengagement and stereotyping within the diverse ethnic Chinese communities on this particular campus and in the region.

Similar news reports coming out of Canadian universities suggest this issue is not isolated to UBC’s campus.

Student voices: The Hong Kong conflict

To understand this issue more completely, we interviewed UBC students and alumni. As researchers, we engaged with students from Hong Kong, Taiwan and mainland China. Our findings highlight the diverse range of perspectives within the diasporic community on UBC’s campus, and draws attention to a student-led initiative facilitating dialogue in times of political tension and increasing polarization.

“I love my country, but I don’t agree with being extremely patriotic,” said Jessica, a UBC alumnus. “[Chinese students are] disagreeing with Hong Kong students, but that doesn’t mean they’re any more Chinese for it.”

Jessica explained how the conflict has affected her life here in Canada. Originally from mainland China, she moved to Vancouver close to 10 years ago to study at UBC. She’s always held liberal views, and yet, regardless of her beliefs and opinions, she feels targeted in Canadian society as an ethnically Chinese individual while scrutinized by some Chinese nationals for holding more liberal views.

“Someone basically told me, if you don’t come, you’re not Chinese,” said Jessica, referring to a pro-China protest held on UBC’s campus during the 2014 umbrella movement.

Zhang Wei, a graduate student at UBC, can relate; he said his identity as a Chinese citizen makes his pro-democracy ideology problematic within his social circle.

“Talking about Hong Kong is complex for me because I genuinely support the pro-democracy movement. I don’t agree with the way the Chinese government has been abusing human rights, especially in the last six years since [Chinese President] Xi Jingping took power.”

Peter, an undergraduate student and Hong Kong native, added:

“We can have different aspects to our identity, but I don’t think we should tie ourselves to government ideology. Is it Hong Kong rejecting China, or is it Hong Kong rejecting the government and the PRC style of policy and rhetoric?”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong native and undergraduate student Danielle said it’s not about political disagreement, it’s about a complete lack of rights.

“It’s so frustrating, I am standing up for a basic fundamental right, but people think I am somehow destroying the society. Yes, I am radical in a way. I stand up for what I believe in, for my rights in society, but that doesn’t mean I hate mainlanders. I recognize where their thoughts and values come from. It’s really hard because it’s not about the facts and the communication, it’s the value system and the structural system that has defined our identities from a very young age.”

Calvin, another undergraduate student at UBC, believes rejecting China and rejecting the government are one and the same, suggesting the Hong Kong government has failed to educate its constituents on the history and cultural values of China:

“There’s definitely a lot of tension between mainlanders and Hong Kongers. Most people just take what the western media says about protests, which is mostly negative towards China. China isn’t as bad as its portrayed. I’ve lived most of my life in China, and I don’t feel like my free speech has been challenged.”

Hua Dialogue: Tackling difficult conversations

The Hong Kong protests illustrate how such a divisive movement abroad can sow tensions among communities here in Canada. Easing those tensions isn’t easy. However, learning how to effectively engage in difficult conversations might be a good place to start.

In this Jan. 1, 2020, photo, Hong Kong people participate in their annual pro-democracy march to insist their five demands be matched by the government in Hong Kong. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu)

The student-led Hua Dialogue at UBC provides a platform for people from different communities to exchange ideas, increase awareness and discuss contentious issues. Moderators facilitate dialogue by indirectly discussing controversial subject matter through a neutral lens. One of their most recent conversations debated the role of media as an influential tool in polarizing opinions.

“Hua Dialogue is a way to challenge stereotypes,” a member of the Hua Executive team said in an interview. “You start to understand where people are coming from and what their viewpoints mean to them.”

Improving the China-Canada diplomatic relationship is fraught with hurdles, but it’s not impossible. At a minimum, we must understand the root cause of the problem from multiple vantage points if there is any chance of repair, both within Canadian communities and internationally.

It is a process that begins by learning how to question our biases and assumptions, while learning how to be comfortable with disagreement and ambiguity; a goal the Hua Dialogue team aims to achieve in every meeting and with every disagreement.

“It was heartbreaking to see growing segregation within Chinese communities, so we wanted to contribute to a space that provides room for growth for people from all types of backgrounds,” added another member of the Hua Executive team.

“Learning about individual experiences, and how they might influence an individual’s thoughts and values, is essential to understanding ourselves and processing our own experiences.”


This article is based on a larger research project conducted and published by the University of British Columbia through the School of Public Policy and Global Affairs in Vancouver, Canada. Names used in this article have been changed to protect the identity of student interviewees. To review the research project in its entirety, click here.

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