Canada’s China panic is an omen of dangerous Cold War politics

Manufactured fear over ‘foreign interference’ could bolster anti-Chinese racism, chill dissent, and expand policing powers
by Listen Chen

Opposition politicians are up in arms, mainstream news outlets churn out daily headlines on “foreign interference” based on leaks from spy agencies, and various politicians of Chinese descent are finding themselves in the crosshairs of intense scrutiny.

While cries about Chinese interference have become frequent in Western countries over the past few years, in Canada they have now reached a fever pitch.

The allegations are exercising a dramatic grip on the public imagination, despite the Canadian security establishment having been very wrong before, leading to the torture of Canadian Muslims falsely accused of terrorism. Today, the anonymous leaks do not appear to be backed up with hard evidence, with mainstream news outlets seemingly quick to overlook inconsistencies and ambiguities in the allegations. And the sudden examination of the loyalties of current and former politicians of Chinese descent smacks of a contemporary yellow peril.

But as China’s global presence has increased, so has alarmist discourse about the country. Countries with pronounced histories of anti-Chinese racism, like the United States, Canada, and Australia, have been at the forefront of stoking anxiety about Chinese interference—with the line between the activities of the Chinese state, and the activities of members of the Chinese diaspora, often blurred.

Those touting the narrative of foreign interference would like us to think that the problem is simple: how to defend Canadian democracy from the threat of shadowy Chinese agents.

But the claims, drawing on Canada’s tenacious history of casting Chinese people as threats, are not all they appear to be. The danger is that this fear-mongering if left unchallenged, will cast grave suspicion on the legitimate participation of Chinese people and organizations in Canadian political life, and build popular support for the West’s increasingly hawkish stance toward China.

Other countries offer a harbinger of the road Canada might follow: legislation encroaching on freedom of expression in Australia, or Chinese students scapegoated as a threat to national security in the United States, including by the director of the FBI.

Already Chinese researchers in Canada have spoken out about the stifling of their research, but a heightened Cold War climate could make the situation much worse.


British Columbia—a laboratory for anti-Chinese panic

In Vancouver, Ng Weng Hoong says he saw Canada’s current panic over China coming a decade ago.

Ng, a journalist who has been writing about China and the Sinophone world for 20 years, told The Breach that its early signs started when the media’s coverage of the city’s housing issues became “increasingly racial and racist.”

As a resident of British Columbia, he’s become intimately familiar with the tendency to explain away complex social and economic crises like the housing crisis with Sinophobic, or anti-Chinese, fearmongering.

“When people are fixated on the race angle,” he said, “it is only a matter of time before they transfer that fixation onto other problems.”

First came the idea that rich Chinese people were responsible for the housing crisis, which current Premier David Eby had a hand in bringing to the mainstream.

In 2015, when Eby was the housing critic for the B.C. NDP opposition, he commissioned a report that surveyed non-Anglicized last names of buyers in a wealthy Vancouver neighbourhood. The report concluded that “the vast majority of houses on the city’s affluent west side [were] bought by new immigrants from China.”

The study was criticized for fanning anti-Chinese racism, conflating last names with citizenship status, and relying on an extraordinarily small sample size—less than 200 home sales that took place over six months. But Ng pointed out that “instead of questioning the study’s obvious flaws, the media championed it.”

Anti-Chinese racism paid political dividends, he said, giving the NDP a boost in the 2017 election.

But the viewpoint wouldn’t have taken off without the help of mainstream media outlets, Ng said, who amplified anti-Chinese narratives.

During the NDP’s time in power, blame over housing evolved into outrage over money laundering and the drug poisoning epidemic. A public inquiry followed. The B.C. Civil Liberties Association argued that anti-Asian racism “played a significant role” in the discourse, citing a disproportionate focus on money from China. They challenged the common misperception that foreign investment was a major factor in B.C.’s housing costs.

David Eby later expressed regret for his role in the study that perpetuated an anti-Chinese narrative. But in the province’s political laboratory, a panic had already begun to grow.

“Eby legitimised the racialization of the housing crisis,” Ng said. “It’s almost impossible now to wash from the public’s consciousness that ethnic Chinese people and their capital are a threat to Canada.”


A warning from down under

In 2017, Australia embarked on its own crusade to purge perceived Chinese influence from its internal affairs.

David Brophy, a historian of Modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney and the author of China Panic: Australia’s Alternative to Paranoia and Pandering, watched it engulf the country’s political discourse—paving the way for sweeping legislation that expanded the powers of security agencies and police, the suppression of dissenting views, and the racial profiling of Chinese people.

Much like in Canada, it started with the media circulating thin narratives and exaggerated claims about “foreign interference.”

Some commentators tried to push back on the escalating rhetoric, Brophy told The Breach over Zoom, pointing out that foreign lobbies of all kinds, as well as corporate interests, interfere and corrupt democratic decision-making in Australia.

“But none of the major [political] parties were interested in that,” he said. “Instead, legislation was introduced that was motivated by the idea that there was something specifically dangerous and undermining about potential links to China.”

The legislation, called the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act and passed in 2018, gave police the power to charge someone with an “intent to commit foreign interference.”

Chinese scholars in Australia had their visas cancelled, at times seemingly because they merely critiqued Australia’s hawkish policies towards China, or because they held favourable views of the country.

“It created a climate that has allowed security agencies and politicians to take forms of punitive action that are actually outside the scope of any legal process,” Brophy said.

“The big question became, ‘Do people who have political views that are supportive of the [People’s Republic of China’s] positions on certain issues have the right to participate in Australian politics on the same terms as other members of the community? This legislation and its enforcement is saying no.”

It remains to be seen the extent to which Canada will follow in Australia’s footsteps. But so far, the Liberal government has announced plans to set up a foreign influence transparency registry, which could be similar to Australia’s.

And last week’s federal budget earmarked tens of millions of extra dollars to the RCMP to combat foreign interference, with another $13.5 million for the creation of a new National Counter-Foreign Interference Office.

There are already laws in place governing how elections are regulated in Canada. But a consultation paper by Public Safety Canada, published last month in order to solicit feedback on the implementation of the registry, suggests that existing laws are incapable of addressing “malign foreign influence.”

The same document offers an imaginary example of foreign influence worthy of intervention. In it, a hypothetical person employed by a foreign government asks a Canadian academic “to write an op-ed opposing the Government of Canada’s approach to a particular international issue, and urging Canadians to likewise disagree.”

In this example, despite there being no coercion, financial incentive, or illegal behaviour, a democratic exercise of free speech becomes a “malign foreign influence,” and an offence.


Finding the “hand of Beijing” in legitimate dissent

Some organizations, as well as a handful of critical journalists, have pushed back on the narrative around foreign interference.

Canada-China Focus, a group launched by the Canadian Foreign Policy Institute and the University of Victoria’s Centre for Global Studies to promote an anti-racist approach, recently published an open letter warning about the dangers.

“Given Canada’s own history of racism, colonialism, and the dispossession of Indigenous peoples, defining what or who is ‘foreign’ may become extremely problematic,” they wrote. “Through their family connections, economic activities, and educational journeys, many Canadians are linked to people and institutions around the world in multiple, complex ways. Drawing lines between what and who is Canadian, and what or who is foreign can be extremely divisive.”

It’s a reality that Brophy echoed, noting that with the exception of Indigenous peoples, Australians are all settlers and have a variety of connections to other parts of the world, which many regularly reflect through their political activities in Australia.

The Canadian government appears unable to embrace that complexity. Public Safety Canada specifically names groups with “close familial and cultural links” as potential agents of foreign interference. In this way, a diasporic group or person who “support[s] foreign geopolitical views to the detriment of Canada’s,” becomes a suspicious actor.

Moreover, in our current moment, “foreign” can easily be deployed to discredit dissenting viewpoints put forward by people of Chinese descent.

Xiaobei Chen, a member of the Canada-China Focus advisory group, is a sociologist at Carleton University who studies Asian migration and diaspora studies and anti-Chinese racism. She told The Breach she has regularly experienced racially-charged backlash for speaking out against anti-Chinese racism or criticising government policies.

In 2020, she wrote a petition protesting Sinophobic depictions of the Chinese diaspora in a Global News television report and an article by journalist Sam Cooper.

“Every overseas Chinese is a warrior,” the report claimed a Chinese government document outlined.

The actual translation was: “Every overseas Chinese is a warrior against the pandemic.”

Chen was later shocked to hear Cooper describe her petition, at a launch of his book Wilful Blindness: How a network of narcos, tycoons, and CCP agents infiltrated the West, as an example of how these three groups had “infiltrated” the West.

Cooper devotes a section of his book to Chen’s petition. In it, he writes that reporter Jeremy Nuttall dismissed the petition at once as “a typical tactic from the Chinese Communist Party.” Later, he writes “it wasn’t hard to identify the hand of Beijing” in the “politically motivated attacks” on his article, which included the petition. He cites “sources in the Chinese and Hong Kong Canadian communities” who found that “the petition and many derivative media posts mirrored statements coming from China’s government.”

Cooper, in Ng’s words, “is Canada’s very own Joe McCarthy,” given the extent to which his career has involved pushing narratives that attribute causes of social and economic problems in B.C. to China and Chinese people.


The voices missing in public discourse

Chen feels that Canada’s foreign policy should be informed by the diversity of the Chinese Canadian diaspora’s perspectives, but finds that this is overlooked in favour of the view of political dissidents who take hard-line approaches toward China.

It doesn’t help, she said, that Chinese Canadians who have critiques of China but disagree with Western intervention, sanctions, and hawkish foreign policy “are faced with risks of intimidation and censorship from both China and Canada.”

In B.C., the Vancouver-based Canadian Friends of Hong Kong is one such group of diasporic dissidents who frequently support hawkish China policies.

Recently, co-founder Fenella Sung told CBC’s Power & Politics, “As Chinese-Canadians, I think it’s really important to know who are the culprits in our community, if there’s any…otherwise this whole suspicion will be shrouded upon the entire Chinese community.” Sung went on to argue that “ruling out culprits” will shield the Chinese community from backlash.

Unfortunately, history proves otherwise. During the Korean War, right-wing Chinese community organisations in the U.S. helped surveil Chinese leftists and workers’ associations, but were still targeted by a McCarthyist investigation by the Department of Justice. Nor did their loyalty stop a 1952 law from significantly limiting all Chinese immigration.

When Sung spoke at a 2019 rally, she claimed that the Chinese Communist Party was “brainwashing” public school students in Richmond, B.C.. She was referring to an incident in which a Mandarin teacher, as part of an assignment,  screened the trailer of a film produced by the Chinese state. Students were asked to discuss why the film was produced and what it sought to convey—hardly indicative of “brainwashing,” much less the involvement of the Chinese state.

Though groups like Canadian Friends of Hong Kong have valid concerns over the Chinese state’s practice of intimidating and repressing dissidents and their family members, their comments can veer into hyperbole.

Ng, the journalist who has regularly called out anti-Chinese coverage in mainstream media, feels that dissident groups “have a legitimate cause.”

“But they undermine their messaging for justice and human rights by not condemning Sinophobic racism in the mainstream media and the Conservative Party of Canada,” he said.

The Breach reached out to the Canadian Friends of Hong Kong as well as the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement for comment, but did not receive a reply from either.


An anti-racist alternative

One of Canada-China Focus’s most pressing calls is for a diplomatic approach to China that reduces international tension—an approach that would disarm one of the chief causes of anti-Chinese racism in Canada.

Brophy had a similar answer when asked what foreign policies he believed this moment demands. Referring to Chinese human rights violations in Xinjiang, he said, “We are definitely in a position now where I think, before we can talk about solidarity, we need to be taking responsibility for the politics on our side that are contributing to the rising tensions. We need to be calling for policies that deescalate conflict, that demilitarise the situation.”

For Chen, Western warmongering is not just a flawed pathway to addressing rights violations and injustices in Xinjiang and the rest of China; they are also worth opposing because of how they buttress Sinophobia within Canada.

“Racism,” Chen said, “always performs an ideological function—there’s nothing essential about it, it’s not self-evident. It’s called upon to justify, to naturalise certain positions and certain strategies.”

In her view, moral panics over Chinese interference have gained currency in Canada because of the growing U.S.-led campaign to weaken and isolate China economically and politically. Such a view insists that racism can only be understood in its historical and geo-political context.

The panicked responses of Western nations to China’s overseas activities have more to do with defending the legitimacy of their own interventions and the competitive imperatives of global capitalism than a benevolent concern for the Global South.

That’s why official denunciations of anti-Chinese racism are unable to name the main driver and legitimizer of contemporary sinophobia: Canada’s growing championing of Western imperial interests and antagonistic policies toward China.

What Canada needs now is a movement unwaveringly committed to anti-imperialism—one strong enough to sway the government to reverse direction and adopt foreign policies toward China that emphasise peace and diplomacy. No other anti-racism will do.


(Listen Chen is a writer of The Breach. You can read more of her work through her website.)

This article was first published by The Breach.


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