“I knew Hong Kong would eventually be handed over to the (Chinese) regime,” she said. “My friends and I, we feared Hong Kong would be totally under the dictatorial rule.”
On June 4, 1989, Li was in Toronto when she saw the infamous tank scene unfold on TV, where a man stood in front of a line of tanks in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square after Chinese soldiers massacred hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters.
Li, now 63, watched in despair from her Vancouver home as police in Hong Kong shot rubber bullets and used tear gas against protesters who had amassed Wednesday to block a meeting on a proposed extradition bill that has become a lightning rod for concerns over greater Chinese control and erosion of civil liberties in the former British colony.
Hong Kong Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung later said the “serious clashes” outside the government building forced police to use pepper spray, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets and tear gas.
At least 72 protesters were hospitalized and two are in serious condition, according to the Hong Kong Hospital Authority.
Some Hong Kong residents are now making arrangements to leave, saying the extradition law, if passed, would be the last straw in years of increasingly aggressive authoritarian moves from China. Members of the Hong Kong diaspora around the world and in Vancouver are watching as immigration lawyers prepare to help clients make the arrangements.
“The younger generation … and the people who decided to stay and are now fighting, they have my utmost admiration,” said Li.
Li and her family are among tens of thousands of immigrants from Hong Kong who left the city in the years surrounding what is known as the “handover” — when the United Kingdom gave control of Hong Kong back to China in 1997.
Under the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement, Hong Kong was supposed to retain a high degree of autonomy, including an independent judiciary for 50 years until the year 2047.
The flow of migrants out of Hong Kong transformed Vancouver. Vancouverite and urban planner Andy Yan joked that Vancouver is like the 18th district of Hong Kong.
“Vancouver has a special relationship with Hong Kong,” he said.
There are 74,120 people in Metro Vancouver who were born in Hong Kong, according to 2016 census data.
Historically, most of the Chinese immigration to Vancouver came from the southern part of China, specifically from Hong Kong, said Yan. Cantonese, the dialect spoken by Hong Kongers, was the most commonly spoken Chinese language in Metro Vancouver homes until 2016 according to census data, said Yan. In 2016, Mandarin overtook Cantonese.
But at least one Vancouver immigration lawyer is expecting to see a bump in the number of people travelling from Hong Kong to Vancouver — in the way of international students.
There are more barriers to immigration in Canada now compared to the ’80s and ’90s, said Will Tao, which means many Hong Kong families may compromise and send their children to Canada to go to school, with plans to follow them afterwards if possible.
“I would assume more parents would want their children educated abroad, particularly pursuing North American education, possibly as a path of immigration.”
Immigration from Hong Kong has dropped off in the past two decades, but with growing uncertainty between the territory and China, Hong Kong residents may start looking at their options, he said.
Tao is already seeing an increasing number of inquiries from clients who once lived in Canada, either as children or as parents of children, then moved back to Hong Kong some time in the last two decades, and now want to return to Canada. This movement may not necessarily be captured by immigration numbers because many are already Canadian citizens.
“The political environment, the abundance of home-owning opportunities, or the well-being of their children and reuniting the family here, are all factors in that process,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Dominic Yeung, 30, sat at the dinner table with his family. They were discussing which country they could move to. The family has lived in Hong Kong all their lives.
“We were actively seeking, researching where we could go — where we could possibly afford to go,” said Yeung, a lawyer, in a phone interview from Hong Kong.
It was the first time the family had been serious about leaving their home.
Yeung recalls the Umbrella Movement in 2014, where protesters occupied the central business district in Hong Kong for months in a bid to bring universal suffrage to Hong Kong.
But even after the Chinese government refused to give in to those demands, Yeung and his family did not think to leave.
“It was nothing we had not dealt with before,” Yeung told Star Vancouver, referring to the lack of voting rights in Hong Kong under British rule.
“Liberty is still here. The rule of law is still here.”
But Yeung, like many others, now believes the extradition law amendment would allow China to implement a new rule of law, one that has little regard for human rights or fair trials.
“That is a different beast that we are dealing with,” he said.
“Make no mistake, if this passes, Hong Kong will be forever different. This is what this is about.”