A review of Xiaobei Chen’s paper on anti-Chinese racism in Canada

Ng Weng Hoong, September 24, 2022, Saturday. @WengCouver

Sociologist Xiaobei Chen has written possibly the first scholarly paper about the new wave of anti-Chinese sentiment sweeping across Canada. It is partly old racism in new packaging, a carryover from the 19th century (1) when nativists learned to blame outsiders and newcomers for their problems.

But more than just old-world racism hangs over Canada’s Chinese Question today. The emergence of a nationalistic China under the authoritarian rule of Xi Jinping is casting a huge shadow over the diaspora in countries, including Canada, that have a visible ethnic Chinese population.

In 2012, Xi won the race for his country’s top job as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the decade that he has been in power, China’s ties with the West and a few Asian countries have deteriorated sharply. Talk of war between China and the United States is now common and widespread. Geopolitics will increasingly shape the identity and destiny of the Chinese diaspora.

Prof Xiaobei Chen. Source: Carleton University, Ottawa

In Canada, as Prof Chen observes, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism have converged with “colonial, postcolonial, Cold War, and the new Cold War geopolitics”.

Her paper, which she provided me in advance of publication in the journal, Migration, Mobility & Displacement (2), is a pioneering attempt to examine the impact of the convergence of old-world racism and new-world geopolitics on Canada’s 1.8 million Chinese population. The journal is published by the Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiative at the University of Victoria in British Columbia.

Prof Chen (3) is well cut out for this work. She specializes in identity and cultural politics at the sociology and anthropology department at Carleton University in Ottawa city, Ontario. As a scholar, she studies colonialism and racism, including Canada’s Chinese issues, speaks about them, and participates in related events. As someone born and raised in China, she confronts these issues in Canada on a personal level.

Her paper kicks off the inquiry by examining three themes tied to the crucial but under-researched topics of Sinophobia and anti-Asian racism.

First, she criticises the current discourse as lacking depth and context. The COVID-19 pandemic of the past 30 months has unleashed and revealed a range of anti-Asian sentiments and acts from within the wider Canadian population. But, as she notes, the discussions and actions to counter anti-Asian racism have been “narrowly focused on individual acts of hateful attacks”. Clearly, there is need for more detailed scholarship into the context and evolving nature of anti-Asian sentiments in the US and Canada over recent times. COVID became a convenient excuse for animosity to break through the thin facade of superficial tolerance.

Second, she sees the current discourse as stemming from “exaggerated claims about the threat of China” harking back to the 1960s and 1970s. This, she believes, is rooted in the “anti-communist Sinophobia” of the last Cold War. A key outcome is the public’s growing tendency to view the Chinese diaspora as threats and the cause of “major problems in the US and in Canada”.

Third, the new wave of anti-Chinese racism has negatively impacted not just the diaspora, but Canada in general. Animosity towards ethnic Chinese people has spilled over to affect the broader East Asian minority population. It has made an already difficult discourse about China even more difficult and complicated. The focus on race has also diverted Canadians’ attention away from addressing real issues that are often homegrown.

Canada’s housing affordability crisis is a prime example. What began as anecdotes about rich foreigners buying up Metro Vancouver’s real estate a decade ago has degenerated into a witch-hunt against people with “non-Anglicised Chinese names”. A bandwagon of politicians, academics, and the media began tagging “Chinese” onto the region’s other crises, all linked to housing. The narrative now has Chinese villainy running through Canada’s struggles with opioids, casino gambling, corruption, money laundering, tax evasion, criminal gangs, and immigration issues.

The narrative has grown increasingly sinister. Canada’s ethnic Chinese population is no longer seen as just outsiders and bystanders, but as saboteurs and fifth columnists as well. Canada’s self-acclaimed “investigative journalist”, Sam Cooper of Global News, delivered the scoop of the decade that this was part of the CCP’s master plan to take down and take over Canada. In 2019, Cooper and his colleagues won a Jack Webster (4), Canada’s most prestigious prize for journalism, for their reporting alleging “mind-blowing” levels of Chinese money-laundering activities in B.C.’s casinos. In 2021, he topped that by writing a supposedly non-fiction political book, Wilful Blindness, that was endorsed by many in the establishment and lapped up by the public to become a national best-seller. Based on anonymous sources and unsubstantiated information, the book spins an epic tale about how the Chinese diaspora, acting for Beijing, had infiltrated Canada to engineer all of Metro Vancouver’s crises over the last 35 years. It is a testament to Cooper’s salesmanship and the mood of our times that his Fu Manchu storyline has won over influential segments of Canadian society and government. Here’s my review (5) of his book.

The stench of racism in the “Chinese Threat” narrative is overwhelming and disgraceful. Yet, it continues to flourish because the idea of Chinese malevolence has become Canadian folklore.

The most intriguing, and ironic, aspect of this new wave of Sinophobia is that it could not have happened without Xi Jinping, the uber nationalist who is pushing to restore China’s “rightful” place in the global pecking order. His rule has come to symbolize the emphasis on the the Han Chinese race, the suppression of China’s minorities, human rights abuses, and territorial disputes with its Asian neighbours. In so doing, Xi’s Sinofascist belief has contributed to the global spread of Sinophobia. More on this later.

Three issues to be addressed
To strengthen her pushback against the conspiracy mongers and their racist messaging, Prof Chen must address three basic issues in her future research.

First, she must define “Chinese”. Basic and obvious as it may seem, this term is a source of endless confusion. It is one reason why the fight against Sinophobia is proving so difficult. “Chinese” can be used interchangeably to refer to the nationality, ethnicity, or language of a people. It can also be used as an adjective, as in “the Chinese government”.

A person can be of Chinese ethnicity, but not of Chinese nationality (People’s Republic of China). Meanwhile, the citizens of many countries include people of Chinese ethnicity who may or may not have links with the PRC.

The “Chinese government” describes the regime in Beijing that rules the PRC. The “Chinese people”, which includes the country’s Han majority and the Uyghur, Tibetan, Hui Muslim, Mongolian, and other minority groups, is taken to mean the citizens of the PRC.

When someone engages in anti-Chinese acts, it means discrimination or racist behaviour against people of Chinese ethnicity regardless of nationality. The Vancouver housing discourse is a good example. One of the most notorious examples of Sinophobic racism came in the form of the “non-Anglicized Chinese names” study (6) jointly produced by David Eby and Andy Yan in 2015. Eby, likely soon to become British Columbia’s Premier, was then the housing critic when his New Democrats (NDP) party was in opposition. Yan is an academic with Simon Fraser University (SFU), and an urban planner with the City of Vancouver. Their poorly-constructed paper based on a microscopic, biased sample size of 172 out of more than 42,000 homes sold in Metro Vancouver, opened the floodgates to Chinese scapegoating for the region’s housing crisis.

Second, Prof Chen must differentiate between Sinophobia, anti-Asian racism, and Chinese scapegoating. Her paper treats all three as having the same meaning when they do not. In my layman’s view, Sinophobia is prejudice and bias against people of Chinese ethnicity, leading to discriminatory treatment.

“Anti-Asian racism” is a difficult concept to apply given that Asia has around 4.5 billion people of great diversity. The region is home to many racial groups broadly categorised around those from South Asia, Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Asia. Pacific Islanders are also part of Asia. Australians and New Zealanders, who are mostly white, are increasingly included as Asians to reflect the geographical context of their respective countries. The region is home to dozens of ethnic groups who practise all of the world’s religions, speak many languages and dialects, and have distinct cultures. What exactly then is “anti-Asian racism”?

In Canada’s context, it could be narrowed down to racist speech or acts against peoples of East, South Asian, and Pacific Island backgrounds. It means anti-Asian racism is not always, and not necessarily Sinophobia.

Further complicating this sub-topic, the Han ethnic group, who form over 90% of mainland China’s population, have been accused of supporting their government’s policies and racist acts against people of Uyghur (7) and Tibetan (8) backgrounds as well as those of the Muslim faith. In Canada, Han Chinese students from the PRC have been known to shut down the voices of their Uyghur and Tibetan compatriots who complain of human rights abuses and racial discrimination back home. In China, Hans have been found openly discriminating against people with darker skin complexion (9), including many from Asia. China has its own anti-Asian racism problem that has gone international, including here in Canada.

Then, there is racism within and among the various Chinese sub-communities. This is a topic all on its own that is not widely reported or studied. Among the Chinese in Canada, tensions and conflicts exist between those who support the CCP and those opposed, along with the neutrals who have been in Canada for too long to care. Chinese sub-communities have been known to discriminate against one another in employment hiring and awarding of business contracts. Some of the most racist comments against Chinese buyers in the housing discourse are made by other ethnic Chinese people.

Why highlight these facts?

For the sake of geopolitics, it is vital to dispel the notion that there is a monolithic Chinese community. Mainstream Canada will be surprised to learn that the ethnic Chinese population does not share the same language, culture, values, and political affiliation. The conspiracy peddlers (10) and media have exploited this monolithic myth to create a bogeyman out of “the Chinese” (11).  They have largely succeeded in their false portrayals of the diverse Chinese diaspora in Canada (and elsewhere) as Beijing loyalists and sleeper agents for the CCP.

“Chinese scapegoating” is by far the most accurate and specific description of the racism directed at the diaspora. The media is guilty of scapegoating when it blames or suggests that Chinese and East Asian-looking people are responsible for Vancouver’s unaffordable-housing, money-laundering, or opioids crises while refusing to investigate a host of other causes. Politicians are also guilty when they ride on the resulting public anger to gain power while refusing to denounce the racist dog-whistling.

The Xi Jinping factor
The third and most difficult issue in the anti-Chinese racism story stems from Beijing’s view of the diaspora and what it regards as Sinophobia.

Under Xi, “anti-Chinese” and “Sinophobia” increasingly denote opposition to his government’s policies and decisions. This is a false idea that Prof Chen and anti-racist campaigners must address and dispel.

Opposition to the Chinese government should not be equated with racism against people of Chinese ethnicity. The misuse of the racism charge is aimed at negating debate about Beijing’s policies.

Xi has added to western suspicion against the diaspora by claiming that they are all part of the “Chinese nation”. In trying to make China the world’s leading superpower, his government has stepped up its campaign to treat the diaspora, regardless of their nationality, beliefs, and values, as CCP assets. The party has dedicated enormous resources to the CCP’s United Front Work Department (UFWD) to expand China’s global influence operations. One of its key goals is to win over the world’s estimated 60 million to 80 million diaspora population to the CCP’s cause.

This policy is rooted in the vision of PRC founding leader Mao Zedong. In his landmark “the Chinese people have stood up” (12) speech in 1949, Mao declared that “overseas Chinese” are part of “the people of the whole country”. Since then, the PRC has made it both policy and practice that every member of the diaspora is integral to “the Chinese nation”, whether they like it or not. Apparently, they have no choice as the CCP deems them as eternal Chinese obligated by blood ties to serve the motherland.

In his keynote speech (13) to a UFWD conference in late July, Xi spoke of the importance of “promoting the unity and hard work of Chinese people at home and abroad to pool strength for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

He described the UFWD as “an important magic weapon” to “truly unite all Chinese sons and daughters (14) of different parties, different nationalities, different classes, different groups, different beliefs and living in different social systems.”

If this policy sounds racist and fascist, it is.

Xi’s comments were immediately criticized by China watchers.

Ho-fung Hung, (15) a political economy professor at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, described it as the “same old dangerous ideology” of “treating everyone with Chinese heritage as subject of the PRC party-state.” It puts the diaspora around the world “in jeopardy”, he tweeted.

Chong Ja Ian, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, warned that “this playing on ethnicity could end very badly, including for ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia.” In his tweet (16), he referred to the 1960s as offering “a lesson”. This likely alludes to Mao’s attempt to recruit the Chinese minorities in Southeast Asia to his revolutionary cause. In Indonesia, it ended in disaster when the army massacred an estimated 500,000 to one million people (17). The victims included many from the local Chinese population (18) who were suspected of being communist sympathisers. While some indeed were, the vast majority were innocent people who were descendants of families long settled in Indonesia going back several generations.

Both Profs Hung and Chong recognise that the diaspora is at risk of a huge political backlash if Xi steps up his claim to their allegiance. In Southeast Asia, suspicion toward ethnic Chinese people lingers on to this day as a result of Mao’s attempts to export his communist revolution in the 1960s. The deadly anti-Chinese violence that followed in parts of the region could well be repeated today if the diaspora is seen to serve Beijing to the detriment of local national interest. In the event of war between China and the U.S., the diaspora could once again be a convenient target.

As for Canada, there is urgent need for a new generation of scholars, analysts, and journalists to help the country understand the challenges posed by both Sinophobia and Sinofascism. Prof Chen would be one of them as she already has a front-row seat to some of these issues. Canada should give her a call. Now.

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1. Wilfrid Laurier University, Nov. 24, 2020. Vancouver anti-Asian riots of 1907 and the parallels to Canada’s modern-day racial divide. https://www.wlu.ca/news/spotlights/2020/nov/vancouver-anti-asian-riots-of-1907-and-the-parallels-to-canadas-modern-day-racial-divide.html

2. Migration, Mobility & Displacement, https://journals.uvic.ca/index.php/mmd

3. Xiaobei Chen, Professor and Associate Chair, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, https://carleton.ca/socanth/profile/chen-xiaobei

4. Jack Webster Foundation, November 8, 2019. 2019 Jack Webster Awards Winners https://www.newswire.ca/news-releases/2019-jack-webster-awards-winners-announced-868103164.html

5. Ng Weng Hoong, August 8, 2021. The Wilful Blindness of Wilful Blindness: A review of Sam Cooper’s book about China in Canada. https://www.straight.com/arts/wilful-blindness-of-wilful-blindness

6. Ng Weng Hoong, June 26, 2021. Letters: Eby-Yan study was racist. https://www.richmond-news.com/opinion/letters-eby-yan-study-was-racist-3910305

7. Tom Blackwell, February 15, 2019. Uyghur activist who sparked Chinese-student protest at McMaster worried about message targeting her son. https://nationalpost.com/news/uyghur-activist-who-sparked-chinese-student-protest-at-mcmaster-worried-about-message-targeting-her-son

8. Radio Free Asia, February 15, 2019. Independent students slam China-backed intimidation on overseas campuses. https://www.rfa.org/english/news/china/campuses-02152019094958.html

9. Bonnie Girard, April 23, 2020. Racism Is alive and well in China. https://thediplomat.com/2020/04/racism-is-alive-and-well-in-china

10. Anthony Furey, June 29, 2021. How Communist China drives drugs, violence and inflated housing prices in Canada. https://nationalpost.com/opinion/how-communist-china-drives-drugs-violence-and-inflated-housing-prices-in-canada-full-comment-with-anthony-furey.

11. Chinese state interference in Canada’s 2021 election, September 14, 2021. https://disinfowatch.org/chinese-state-interference-in-canadas-2021-election.

12. Mao Zedong, The Chinese People Have Stood Up! September 21, 1949. https://china.usc.edu/Mao-declares-founding-of-peoples-republic-of-china-chinese-people-have-stood-up

13.Xinhua, July 30, 2022. Xi Focus: Xi stresses unity of Chinese at home, abroad to pool strength for rejuvenation. https://english.news.cn/20220730/fc3a00ba0e264b56a7123ed42cc927b3/c.html

14. People’s Daily, July 31, 2022. Xi Jinping: Promoting the united struggle of Chinese sons and daughters at home and abroad for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2022-07/31/nw.D110000renmrb_20220731_1-01.htm

15. Ho-Fung Hung, July 31, 2022. Same old dangerous ideology treating everyone with Chinese heritage as subject of the PRC party-state, putting Chinese diaspora around the world in jeopardy. https://twitter.com/hofunghung/status/1553925147601653764

16. Ian Chong, July 31, 2022·This playing on ethnicity could end very badly, including for ethnic Chinese communities in Southeast Asia. The 1960s should be a lesson. https://twitter.com/ChongJaIan/status/1553942569746571267

17. Phelim Kine, August 17, 2017. Human Rights Watch: Indonesia again silences 1965 massacre victims https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/08/07/indonesia-again-silences-1965-massacre-victims

18. Christian C. Lentz, Book review, April 2021. Taomo Zhou, “Migration in the Time of Revolution: China, Indonesia, and the Cold War”. https://networks.h-net.org/node/22055/reviews/7596086/lentz-zhou-migration-time-revolution-china-indonesia-and-cold-war