The Great Wall of Mandarin

Metro Vancouver faces issues on Chinese language use as Canada pushes for greater bilateral ties with China

September 6, 2016

Last week, as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was promoting Canada in China, the Vancouver Sun published two stories pertaining to the place of the Mandarin language in North America’s most Asian city.

In Richmond, a Metro Vancouver city where more than half its 200,000 population are of Chinese descent, a protracted battle over the perceived spreading use of Mandarin has thrown up a landmark human rights test case. The strata council of a 54-unit townhouse complex has insisted on using Mandarin in its meetings instead of English or French, the country’s two official languages, according to a complaint filed by seven non-Mandarin speaking residents. The matter was briefly resolved after the non-Mandarin speakers filed a class-action complaint with the British Columbia Human Rights Tribunal last December. But it has flared up again as the new strata council has allegedly reverted to using Mandarin, excluding the rest from meaningful participation at their most recent meeting.

Au Chak, a Richmond City council member, who has been asked to help resolve the issue, has denounced the council’s “terrible” decision.

In an interview last week, he said he has urged the strata council’s chairperson to explain to the public why it had reverted to using Mandarin.

“Richmond is an international city in Canada. It is not a Chinese city. I don’t think their decision is defensible,” he said.

The story has stirred up widespread anger, with online forum discussions criticising Chinese migrants with poor English language skills for trying to impose their language and culture on Canada.

The second story speaks to the need for Canadians to learn other languages, especially Mandarin, or face further decline in their economic competitiveness. It reported Jimmy Mitchell, a former Canadian diplomat who speaks fluent Mandarin, lamenting Vancouverites’ failure to take advantage of the city’s demographic and cultural base to learn the language.

Mr Mitchell was a speaker at the inaugural Canada China Trade Conference held at the Vancouver Convention Centre on August 23. Some 600 participants registered to attend the event to help Canadian firms export to China through numerous online platforms, said Ivan Chen, a business development manager for the Vancouver-based organiser Richway New Media Technology. Most of the speakers presented in Mandarin as they pitched their online platforms and services to help Canadian firms sell their products to China’s estimated 650 million Internet users.

As Canada’s economy slips into yet another nasty recession, the inevitable call goes out for its people and companies to think Asia and study Mandarin. The opportunities are too huge to pass up and the risk of being left behind is real, say Canada’s political, academic and business leaders on numerous occasions and in various studies.

But Canadians are not responding. Either they are an obstinate lot, or China and Chinese culture are a big turn-off, or both. What’s causing the impasse?

On the world stage, there’s growing unease and resistance to China’s rise. Canadians are concerned about China’s human rights record and how it is treating smaller countries in the South China Sea dispute. On the local level, unbalanced and sensational reporting by the mainstream media is fanning resentment and xenophobia toward the growing Chinese presence in Metro Vancouver’s housing market. The Chinese government has added to the standoff with its over-eager promotion of the study of Mandarin through the Confucius Institute. There’s suspicion that Beijing is using the language as a cover to boost its influence around the world.

The Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada’s latest annual survey has confirmed Canadians’ unwavering underlying anti-China sentiment as part of their overall hesitance toward building closer ties with Asia. Might the survey suggest that as long as Canadians are uncomfortable with China, they are unlikely to be motivated to learn Mandarin regardless of the socio-economic benefits from knowing the language and culture?

These issues take on greater significance following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent trip to China from August 30 to September 6 to push for expanded bilateral ties. In between, he attended the G20 summit in Hangzhou city on September 4 and 5. Apart from securing 56 business deals with Chinese companies worth a total of C$1.2 billion during the trip, Canada is exploring a free trade deal with China. It also wants to invite more Chinese investors, students, workers and tourists into Canada.

If the Trudeau mission to save the economy succeeds, the Chinese presence in Metro Vancouver will increase, and the use of Mandarin could well extend beyond strata council meetings. How will Canadians respond?

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