Canada at risk as media struggles with Chinese conundrum
More than ever, newspapers and broadcast outlets need to identify and incorporate new voices conversant with the Asia-Pacific region
Which was the most salient story from Canada’s 44th federal election?
The politics of the COVID-19 pandemic would be a strong candidate. Also in contention are the economy, the housing crisis gone nationwide, and the pelting of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by stone-throwing populists.
As it turned out, the defeat of three Conservative members of Parliament in ridings, each with a substantial ethnic Chinese population, were in the headlines for weeks after the September 20 vote. The story could remain on the minds of political strategists, scholars, and journalists for years to come.
It is a sign of our geopolitical times that the voting behaviour of Canada’s perennial outsiders should garner so much attention. As a group, the country’s ethnic Chinese are the lightweights of the political lightweights. They comprise just 4.5 percent of Canada’s 39 million population and have an established reputation for disinterest in the vote.
Most times, the Chinese are ignored in the public discourse except when a villain is needed to hang for Canada’s unending housing crisis or money laundering problems. They are poorly represented in Canada’s politics, media, corporate world, academia, and mainstream cultural scene. Most have a poor command of Canada’s national languages, English and French. So, what makes pundits and journalists think the “Chinese vote”, if such a thing even exists, can be manipulated to influence Canada’s political destiny?
Kenny Chiu lost his Steveston-Richmond East seat in British Columbia after his share of the popular vote fell from 41.8 percent in the previous election in 2019 to 33.5 percent in 2021.
His colleague, Alice Wong, a veteran politician and former cabinet minister, suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of a novice opponent in the neighbouring Richmond Centre riding. Her share of the popular vote plunged from 49 percent to 37.1 percent.
In Ontario, Bob Saroya was ejected from Markham–Unionville after serving two terms.
All three fell to candidates from the ruling Liberals headed by Trudeau, who won a third term to govern. Other ridings with notable proportions of ethnic Chinese voters have also come under scrutiny for their anti-Conservative swing.
Not according to commentators in the mainstream media who immediately took up Chiu’s narrative about foreign influence, and possibly interference, in Canada’s election. The one-term member of Parliament blamed his defeat on the supporters of China’s government for spreading “misinformation and lies” about him on WeChat, the Chinese social media that has a huge global following.
He told Richmond News that his opponents had branded him “anti-Chinese” for his criticism of Beijing’s poor human rights record and draconian policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. In April, Chiu earned a sanction from Beijing that barred him from entering China, Hong Kong, and Macau, and from doing business with Chinese nationals and institutions.
He spoke of “a collapse of support for Conservatives in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) and the Lower Mainland (Greater Vancouver)”. The two regions are home to the majority of Canada’s estimated 1.8 million ethnic Chinese population (2016 census).
The Chinese conundrum
Chiu and his supporters have a point. President Xi Jinping and his ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would love to have pro-Beijing politicians in power in Canada and around the world.
But foreign influence alone does not explain the defeat of the Conservative party candidates. Many other factors contributed to Chiu’s electoral loss.
The first reality is that the CCP’s influence campaign is failing badly, not just in Canada, but in many parts of the world. Canadian sentiments towards China are at a record low, and still falling.
As Chiu knows too well, the China factor cuts both ways. In 2019, the savvy voters of Steveston-Richmond East elected him over then-incumbent Joe Peschisolido because the Liberal party MP was seen to be backed by alleged supporters of the Chinese government.
Peschisolido’s share of the popular vote plunged from 45 percent in 2015 to 35.1 percent in 2019 following reports of his law firm's alleged ties to both a suspected Chinese drug lord and a China-connected Liberal party donor. China’s supposed preference for Peschisolido actually harmed his political career, and contributed to Chiu’s upset victory in 2019. Did the media and political pundits mention this in their “analyses” of Chiu’s defeat in 2021?
The CCP certainly asserts some influence over sections of the Chinese diaspora, estimated at anywhere between 80 million and 100 million around the world. The problem lies in determining the extent of that influence and over which sections of the diaspora. There has not been a proper study done on this increasingly vital subject.
A small but vocal minority of pro-Beijing business and grassroots leaders tries to give the impression that “the Chinese community” supports Xi and his government. Both the CCP as well as its opponents believe that Beijing’s main support comes from recent immigrants with strong family, business, and political ties in China.
But this picture is simplistic. The Chinese diaspora today is a mixed bag of distinct sub-communities, sometimes in conflict with each other.
Among those who immigrated from, or fled, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) for a better life in Canada are many of Xi’s opponents. Some fight for human rights causes and oppressed groups in China, including the Tibetans and Uyghurs. But there are also racist elements among the anti-CCP cohort who team up “with far-right, anti-immigration groups who frequently target Muslims”.
An even more important consideration is that many, if not most, PRC immigrants choose to stay out of politics altogether, which explains their perennially low voting participation rates. The CCP has trouble motivating this large passive group to vote, never mind influence them on whom to vote for.
Further undermining the “Chinese bloc” story line, the majority of Canada’s estimated 1.8 million ethnic Chinese population are not even from mainland China. Those with ties to Hong Kong and Taiwan are probably unfriendly to Beijing, while the immigrants from Southeast Asia and elsewhere are largely indifferent to “the motherland”. There is also a core group of “old stock” Chinese whose long roots in Canada mean they have little or no ties to China.
Therein lies the conundrum in dealing with the “Chinese community”.
As a political bloc, does it even exist? In a 2019 study University of British Columbia researchers Miu Chung Yan, Karen Lok, and Daniel Lai confirmed the existence of distinct sub-ethnic groups within the population. To complicate matters, these sub-ethnic groups compete and discriminate against each other, with older stock Chinese often displaying disdain towards the newer immigrants. Some of the most racist comments against Chinese immigrants are made by other Chinese Canadians.
But to many Canadians, “the Chinese” are a monolithic group who are assumed to all speak and write Mandarin, have WeChat accounts, red Xinhua News propaganda every day, and share the same cultural and political values.
Some in the media have exploited this stereotype and the public’s ignorance to spread fear that the diaspora in Canada is an army of embedded “overseas warriors” on standby to serve the CCP.
The leading proponent of this dangerous view is the Global News journalist Sam Cooper who has written a best-selling book, Wilful Blindness, based largely on anonymous sources and unsubstantiated claims, about a CCP plot to take over Canada. See my review of his book in the Georgia Straight. As yet, no one in the mainstream media, academia, and polity has challenged Cooper’s continuing alarmist reporting.
The path not taken
CKNW’s radio host Jas Johal was among the first journalists to take up Chiu’s claim that his electoral defeat was due to CCP manipulation of the “Chinese vote”.
Two days after the election, Chiu was on Johal’s show to answer “Did a WeChat smear campaign cost a local MP his seat?” Spoiler alert: Chiu said “yes”.
It was a showcase in bad journalism, as one-sided as any Xinhua News or Breitbart propaganda. Chiu was not asked about his performance as an MP or if the Conservative party had lost votes for its stance on the environment, gender politics, and COVID vaccinations.
Would “the Chinese” have voted for a candidate promising better (or worse) ties with China while failing to address the real threats of anti-Asian racism, climate change, or housing affordability in Richmond?
This is precisely where Chiu should have been questioned.
Did he do enough to comfort and protect his worried constituents during the recent unprecedented surge in anti-Asian racism in Metro Vancouver? When Michel Jean-Jacque Berthiaume and Astrid Maria Secreve were both charged with mischief for racially abusing an Asian person, should Chiu and fellow MP Wong have pressed for the case to be upgraded to that of a hate crime? Did they work with their party, community activists, the media, and the police to confront the threat of rising anti-Asian sentiments?
The fact was both MPs were largely missing in the fight against racism in North America’s Asian hate crime capital. If they could not be counted on this hot-button issue, what good are they to the Asian communities that they are supposed to serve? Some constituents complained that Chiu was more interested in capturing national headlines for his foreign policy activism against Beijing (important as it is) than for unglamorous grassroots work.
Another question missed: did Chiu also lose the non-Chinese vote? Fifty-three percent of Steveston-Richmond East’s estimated 100,000 population is non-Chinese. It would be earth-shaking news if they too had been swayed by the CCP’s WeChat campaign conducted entirely in Chinese.
Johal was not the only journalist trapped inside his own echo chamber. Ian Young of the South China Morning Post (SCMP), and the National Post’s Tasha Kheiriddin and Adam Zivo also beat the Chinese-influence angle to death in their respective “reporting” of the vote swing. Even the generally balanced Rupa Subramanya offered little and was reduced to citing Young as if he is an expert on Chinese issues. These journalists reinforced a message that Chinese Canadians are susceptible to CCP influence.
Confirming their viewpoint, they did not interview the winning candidate, Parm Bains, to find out if he had run a better campaign. In an all-candidate debate on Zoom hosted by Richmond News, he put Chiu on the defensive by pointing out that some Conservative leaders do not believe in climate change or support vaccination to stop the spread of COVID. British Columbians are among the country’s biggest supporters of actions to protect the environment and promote vaccination. The Conservatives fell short on both counts, and their candidates were punished.
Chiu and Wong may also have lost the support of younger Richmondites when they voted against a bill in Parliament to restrict conversion therapy. Bill C-6 would make forcing someone, including a child, to undergo conversion therapy, or advertising it, illegal. The therapy aims to change someone’s sexual orientation to be heterosexual.
On Twitter, Laurel Drieds told Johal: “Why didn’t you ask him if he felt his vote not to ban conversion therapy had consequences? This riding has some folks who care about this stuff!”
These seasoned journalists should relearn the lost art of balanced reporting from Richmond News’ Nono Shen who interviewed Chinese community leaders, Tung Chan and Jimmy Yan. The two men offered reasons for the anti-Conservative swing not mentioned by the mainstream media. Basically, the Conservative party, like the media, made little effort to understand or reach out to their Asian constituents.
The threat of misinformation from within
Increasingly, Canadians are more at risk of misinformation from the country’s mainstream media than the CCP’s propaganda.
The one-dimensional focus on the CCP influence in the Conservatives’ defeat in Election 44 points to the media’s unwillingness to understand and accurately report on Canada’s increasingly complex Chinese issues. It also underlines the lack of contrarian and knowledgeable voices among the country’s opinion makers.
The rush to harshly judge the country’s diverse Chinese communities has been building for over a decade. It has been nurtured by the media’s distorted reporting of Metro Vancouver’s housing problems over the course of the 2010s. Today, there is a knee-jerk response among sections of the Canadian population to blame the ethnic Chinese population for many of the country’s problems, including the rising cost of living, the opioid crisis, and money-laundering.
This has been amply demonstrated on the housing front where the media is the leading source of misinformation. Global News’ Sam Cooper, SCMP’s Ian Young, Vancouver Sun’s Douglas Todd, Globe and Mail’s Gary Mason, the Walrus’s contributor Kerry Gold, and Maclean's contributor Terry Glavin, among others, have succeeded in selling their populist narrative that foreign, especially Chinese, capital caused Metro Vancouver’s affordability crisis.
They have had the support of politicians like David Eby, British Columbia’s attorney general and housing minister, and academics Andy Yan and Josh Gordon of the Simon Fraser University, and David Ley, formerly of the University of British Columbia, and activists in groups like the Housing Action for Local Taxpayers (HALT).
In 2015, Eby and Yan jointly produced a landmark study by racially identifying the buyers of 172 houses in an expensive Vancouver neighbourhood. The data sampling undertaken by Eby, the housing critic when the B.C. NDP was in opposition, captured two-thirds of the buyers for their “non-Anglicized Chinese names”. The 172 houses constituted around 0.4 percent of more than 42,000 homes sold in Metro Vancouver for the year.
Despite the study’s microscopic data sample size and dodgy methodology, the media championed its finding as evidence that Chinese immigrants and their money were buying up the city’s housing supply. Retired politician Garth Turner rightly called it “racist” but the study prevailed. It fuelled the rising xenophobic tide in 2015 that led to widespread blame on foreign capital as well as any Asian person for the region’s housing problems. It also provided the foundation for Eby to engineer the B.C. NDP government’s dubious money-laundering inquiry in 2019 on the suspicion that dirty money from Asia was the root cause of the housing crisis.
The collective failure or refusal of this influential group to consider other factors driving the housing market ought to be the subject of research by Canada’s journalism schools, and political science and sociology scholars. On Twitter and in my articles, I have called for the media and scholars to investigate the role of at least 16 other factors influencing Vancouver’s housing market, but to no avail. The result is “the Chinese factor” has become the default “explanation” for the Vancouver housing crisis. The latest propaganda for this scapegoating narrative is a documentary, Lotusland, launched at the Vancouver International Film Festival in October 2021.
Canada’s China challenge and the Chinese conundrum
The need for accurate, balanced reporting on issues related to Canada’s Chinese communities should be a national imperative today in view of the growing challenges posed by China under a hypernationalistic, totalitarian regime.
Canada’s interest is at risk when its media, tasked to inform the people, appears to be either disinterested to provide accurate and balanced reporting or seeks to demonize a section of the population as a collective threat to the nation.
More than ever, Canada’s media needs to identify and incorporate new voices conversant with the Chinese conundrum. The current batch of reporters tasked with informing the nation on this issue has failed to do the job.