Ng Weng Hoong: Sinophobia with Canadian characteristics
Canada’s Chinese minority could soon be dragged into a new treacherous era in identity politics as their loyalty to the nation is coming under attack from leaders of the country’s second-largest political party.
Erin O’Toole, who stepped down as leader of the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) after its defeat in last September’s Federal election, has alleged in two recent interviews that Beijing swung the ethnic “Chinese vote” to help the ruling Liberal Party win Canada’s 44th federal election. His views are supported by Michael Chong, the Conservatives’ foreign affairs critic who adds weight to the accusation on account of his partial Chinese heritage.
On June 7, O’Toole unveiled what could become a focus in the party’s new strategy to win power. In an interview with the podcast, Uncommons, he claimed that the Conservatives lost “eight to nine seats” because of China’s interference in Canada’s politics through the Chinese diaspora vote.
The Liberals, under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, won 160 seats, 10 short of the minimum 170 needed to rule on its own. The Liberals then formed a government with support of the left-leaning New Democrats, which had captured 25 seats.
“We almost won the elections,” O’Toole declared, sounding like Donald Trump, who continues to insist the U.S. presidential election was stolen from him in 2020.
Like Trump, he also failed to provide any evidence for his allegations. The CPC remains the official opposition after taking 119 of the 338 contested seats, two less compared with 121 in the previous election in 2019.
O’Toole was not pressed for details by the interviewer, Liberal MP Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, who operates the podcast.
Politico’s Canada journalist, Andy Blatchford, sought a follow-up interview but could not reach the MP for Durham, Ontario. Instead, Blatchford landed Michael Chong, the CPC’s foreign affairs critic, who not only confirmed O’Toole’s views, but said he shares them as well.
Speaking to a bigger audience on June 18, O’Toole doubled down on his allegation that Canada’s Chinese communities had been turned by Beijing’s propaganda.
He told CBC anchor Chris Hall that Beijing had used the Chinese-language social media and messaging app platform WeChat to spread misinformation against the Conservative party. The biggest proponent of this story is Kenny Chiu, the former Conservative MP who lost his Steveston-Richmond East seat in British Columbia last September after serving just one term. Chiu’s narrative has gained ground as Canada’s mainstream media has promoted his cause while not questioning his below-par performance as an elected official.
Fighting misinformation with misinformation
In countering Beijing’s misinformation campaign, the Conservatives have launched their own set of misinformation against Canada’s 1.8 million ethnic Chinese population. This is a wrong and dangerous strategy on several counts.
First, O’Toole and Chong are effectively accusing Canada’s Chinese of being a collective national security threat on the basis of their ethnicity. They are building on the fearmongering of Global News populist journalist Sam Cooper whose best-selling book suggests Chinese Canadians are a tool for the Chinese Communist Party’s planned takeover of Canada. Cooper’s thesis relies heavily on the use of anonymous sources and unsubstantiated contents that nevertheless have been endorsed by some analysts and members of the media.
Second, the Conservatives are broad-brushing Canada’s diverse, complex Chinese communities as a monolithic group whose members share similar political and cultural values as well as language skills. It feeds on the stereotype that all ethnic Chinese people are alike. They are all assumed to converse in the Mandarin language, have WeChat accounts, are avid readers of China’s state-owned Xinhua news, and are immigrants from China or have extensive ties in China.
Third, O’Toole and Chong are using their enormous influence to misinform mainstream Canada, including many who have little knowledge of the diverse Chinese diaspora. For many Canadians, “the Chinese” is a caricature of widespread negative images in the media as well as the aggressive conduct of the People’s Republic of China government under President Xi Jinping.
Many people are unaware of the fact that Chinese people have been in Canada long before it was founded in 1867, that they played a key role in the country’s founding, and that many are local-born citizens, not immigrants. The vast majority of Chinese in Canada are of working-to-middle class background, not the jet-setting billionaire speculators and criminals that the media loves to hate. Many are not from China and have little dealings with Beijing. There is also a sizeable diaspora population that opposes Beijing, especially those with strong links to Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Fourth, the two Conservative leaders are the self-proclaimed moderates of Canada’s right, which makes their allegations of a Chinese conspiracy believable to many Canadians. O’Toole has positioned himself as the anti-populist Conservative who embraces diversity. Except, it seems, where Canada’s Chinese minority is concerned.
In his two interviews, O’Toole showed a failure and an unwillingness to grasp the complexity of Canada’s Chinese Question. He left it open to interpretation that the “community” could be the country’s fifth columnist. If Canada needs an enemy to unite its left and right, China will be it. The Chinese diaspora will end up with a bullseye on its back.
In the event of war
What could befall Canada’s Chinese communities if a shooting war breaks out between China and the West?
Metro Vancouver in B.C. will likely become ground zero for a backlash against Canada’s Chinese, and wider Asian, population. Consider how anti-Asian sentiments exploded in response to recent disparate issues: the COVID-19 pandemic, the city’s housing affordability crisis, and B.C.’s money-laundering inquiry. These sentiments have deep roots in Canada’s long history of anti-Asian racism since the mid-1800s.
The current resurgence owes to Canada’s unending housing crisis that has been largely blamed on Asian, mostly Chinese, immigrants and their foreign capital. Policymakers, academics, and influential journalists have fanned the scapegoating. They have shown little interest in a host of other factors that have driven the world’s asset bubbles, especially the loose monetary “quantitative easing” policies of major economies.
David Eby, B.C.’s charismatic attorney general, led the charge against people with “non-Anglicized Chinese” names that he has accused of driving the “toxic demand” for Vancouver’s housing crisis. His landmark “study” with now Simon Fraser University urban planner Andy Yan has cast a pall on that segment of the Canadian population as outsiders, speculators, and criminals.
In 2019, the ambitious politician, who could become B.C.’s next premier, took it a step further when he engineered the B.C. NDP government’s inquiry into money-laundering in the province. Eby targeted areas that have a visible Chinese presence: housing, casinos, education, luxury goods, and high-end cars.
Conspicuously, he avoided investigating B.C.’s murky multibillion-dollar cannabis sector that is dominated by old-stock Canadians and homegrown criminal gangs. The province’s mostly illegal cannabis market has flourished for decades as it remains largely unpoliced and unhampered to launder vast sums of money. Also missing from the inquiry and the media narrative is Canada’s capital markets that churn hundreds of billions of dollars in trades each year.
Did the cannabis and capital markets, among others, escape scrutiny because the inquiry was intended to focus on Asian people?
Following a surge in racist acts and the widespread negative media portrayal against Metro Vancouver’s 600,000 Chinese population, Bloomberg awarded the city the new title of North America’s anti-Asian hate capital.
This “accolade” portends worse to come.
To the Eby thesis, journalist Sam Cooper has since added his tale of a long-term plot by China’s ruling Communist party to use the Chinese diaspora to undermine Canada.
O’Toole, Chong, Chiu, and their supporters are now building on the Eby-Cooper narratives to portray Canada’s Chinese population as outsiders who cannot be trusted, regardless of how long they have been in the country.
Misuse of the McGill University report
While Chiu failed to impress the voters in Steveston-Richmond East in his two years as their MP, he scored on the national stage with his allegations about Beijing’s influence over Canada’s “Chinese vote”. He has the support of the Conservative party’s leadership, and possibly the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS).
The party’s Michael Chong even offered a research report by McGill University as proof. He told Politico:
“The communist leadership in Beijing did interfere in the last federal election by spreading disinformation through proxies on Chinese-language social media platforms that contributed to the defeat of a number of Conservative MPs.”
But Chong did not mention the report’s most important finding, which contradicted the Conservative leadership’s messaging:
“We find no evidence that Chinese interference had a significant impact on the overall election,” it said on page 3.
Chong did not respond to my email seeking clarification if he had misrepresented the report. I also asked him if the Conservative party had officially endorsed the view that it lost the election because of China’s interference.
For sure, Chinese government officials and state media tried to persuade some Canadians of Chinese background to vote against the Conservative party.
But they failed, according to the McGill team of 19 researchers who produced the 82-page report, Mis- and Disinformation During The 2021 Canadian Federal Election.
On page 4, it observed: “Canadians did not perceive misinformation to have been central in the campaign. Most Canadians believe the election was safe from foreign interference.”
The McGill team was led by project director Aengus Bridgman, a research fellow at the university’s Centre for the Study of Democratic Citizenship who specializes in studying and preventing digital threats to democracy. Bridgman, who works with the Media Ecosystem Observatory, is affiliated with the Centre for Media Technology and Democracy, the Max Bell School for Public Policy, and the Network Dynamics Lab.
The venom of snake oil
The Chinese Threat, stemming from the idea of the Asian outsider, has long been a part of the Canadian consciousness since the 19th century. Today, it has found new life with China’s emergence as a powerful totalitarian regime.
Canada faces three immediate challenges.
First, there is no template for a middle power with a modest population, a small military, and an economy about 11 percent the size of China’s to follow to deal with the growing might of the Asian superpower. How should Canada manage the widening power gap between the two countries?
Second, Canada must find new ways to defend its liberal principles of human rights, the rule of law, and multiculturalism against an illiberal regime that has little use for free expression, and political, social, cultural, and intellectual diversity.
Third, Canada must recognize and counter the threat coming from within its own establishment peddling a pervasive Chinese Threat story that often conflates ethnicity with China and its communist party. This is the most urgent and serious of the three challenges. It is due mostly to the fact that Canadians do not recognize their own misinformation and the threat it poses to the country’s politics. The narrative of a total and overwhelming Chinese Threat purports to explain the recent ills that have befallen Canada. It covers everything from the housing crisis and rising unaffordability to casino money-laundering, the opioids trade, criminal gang activities, and national security issues.
If China really wants to undermine Canada, it should look beyond manipulating WeChat and the Chinese media to influence a small segment of Canada’s small Chinese population. Instead, it should help expand the fearmongering reach of Erin O’Toole, Michael Chong, Kenny Chiu, David Eby, Sam Cooper, and their supporters. Their scapegoating campaign will deliver real venom when more Canadians want someone to blame for the increasingly difficult financial and economic conditions that lie ahead.