A battle for public opinion over China and the protests in Hong Kong is playing out at schools in British Columbia.

Last week, supporters of greater democratic freedoms in Hong Kong set up an information booth at an annual professional development conference attended by hundreds of social studies teachers in the province. At the event, activists with the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement, a non-governmental organization, handed out information kits to educators.

The pamphlets, which organizers hoped would reach mainland Chinese students, draw attention to the Tiananmen Square killings in 1989 as well as information about the Hong Kong protests, criticizing China’s increasing suppression of the city’s freedoms.

“We are not against China, we are against the communist regime,” says one flyer.

The campaign took place days after a teacher at Steveston-London Secondary School in Richmond, just south of Vancouver, showed her Mandarin class students trailers for a patriotic Chinese film celebrating the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. The students were given a list of questions to discuss the trailers, but the assignment sparked complaints from parents that the trailers were pro-China propaganda and the school asked the teacher to withdraw the assignment. The principal sent a letter to parents saying the teacher intended to use the trailers to show students a historical event or cultural activity in China and the assignment was for “oral practice only.”

The two events were not linked, but are both examples of heightened tensions in B.C. around Hong Kong’s struggle for greater democratic rights from China – an inflammatory subject in the sizable ex-pat community in Vancouver. The tensions spilled out in demonstrations on Vancouver street corners this summer, with pro-Hong Kong activists squaring off against pro-Beijing demonstrators. Scuffles over the destruction of pro-Hong Kong signs have also been videotaped and posted to social media.

According to Greg Neumann, vice-president of the B.C. Social Studies Teachers Association, 46 organizations, including Amnesty International and the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre, set up booths on Friday to hand out materials to the province’s educators.

“We would not accept any organization that promotes any sort of illegal activity, or hatred in any form toward any group, especially those which are marginalized. We will not censor the messages of those promoting peace, justice, love, democracy, or any of the key values we have in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms,” Mr. Neumann said in an e-mail.

He added it is up to the teachers attending the conference to judge for themselves the usefulness and appropriateness of the resources provided by the exhibitors.

Prof. Wanda Cassidy, director of Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Education, Law and Society, said the topic of the materials being offered to teachers by the pro-Hong Kong society fits with social studies education.

“Social studies education encourages debate and discussion about all sorts of current local and world topics and teachers generally introduce students to a variety of perspectives on any given controversial topic,” she wrote in an e-mail.

“This might include examining different sorts of materials and messages that various groups convey. This fosters critical thinking, a main goal of social studies.”

Mabel Tung, chair of the pro-democracy society, said her group has been spreading the history of Tiananmen Square protests and massacre for years and providing tools and resources for teachers, but last week’s campaign was their first attempt to promote information about Hong Kong protests to B.C. educators.

“We want to tell the message to all Canadians to stand up for Hong Kong, to stand for the Hong Kong people, to fight for democracy,” she said. “Whatever is happening in Hong Kong, it may be happening anywhere in the world.”

One flyer distributed to teachers listed several reasons why many Hong Kongers are protesting, and why they fear Hong Kong being governed by the Chinese Communist Party.

“Because the Hong Kong government and the Chinese Communist Party is eroding Hong Kong’s autonomy: Communist infiltration of Hong Kong legislature; suppressing journalistic freedoms and free speech …” the flyer says.

Ms. Tung said her group hopes teachers can help reach students from mainland China with what she said was the correct information about the protests, such as that the movement isn’t demanding independence.

Officials with the Chinese consulate in Vancouver objected to the pamphlet campaign, saying it’s an effort by agitators from a foreign country trying to interfere in Hong Kong affairs, which they consider China’s domestic affairs.

“We think this should also be brought to the Canadian authorities’ attention and should be stopped from happening again. Furthermore, the indicated behavior should be condemned as it has nothing to do with freedom of expression but purely attempts to provoke political dispute by using public platform,” the statement reads.

When asked for comment, a spokesman with the Ministry of Education provided a statement noting that B.C. boards of education are responsible for choosing the resources that are used in their local schools.

Ken Tung, former chair of social service organization SUCCESS and a volunteer for the pro-democracy group, said activists also discussed modern China with participants at the teachers’ event.

“People need those backgrounds to talk about our international relationship – Sino-Canada relationship,” he said.

“The students definitely need to understand the international relationship, international trade, [and] how we work with Canadian values with those countries.”

The Globe and Mail, October 30, 2019