Have discussions in Canada of alleged Chinese interference in past elections been racist?

This question has been receiving more consideration in the past couple of weeks following reporting from Global News alleging MP Han Dong is a “witting affiliate in China’s election interference networks.” (Dong has denied the allegations and served Global News with a libel notice, demanding a retraction and a widely broadcast apology.)

Some prominent figures have argued that racism hasn’t played a role in this discussion. For example, on March 20, Conservative MP Michael Chong told the House of Commons: “Some have suggested that, by raising the issue of Beijing’s foreign interference, we are somehow fomenting anti-Asian racism. This is a facile argument, and I say that as someone who knows what it is like to be the target of anti-Asian racism.” Some have argued otherwise. For example, Conservative Ontario MPP Vincent Ke, whom Global News accused of being an intermediary in a 2019 covert money transfer between China and federal candidates, told the outlet: “This is a false accusation. This is racist. […] It’s racist because I was born in China, because I come from China.”

I decided to examine this question by focusing on reporting from Global News and The Globe and Mail, from which this political crisis has emerged. I found that allegations of Sinophobia (anti-Chinese racism) shaping this media coverage are accurate.

Accusing a politician of having dual loyalties (or being an outright ‘traitor’) is one of the most serious allegations that can be made, and should only be done with the utmost caution. This applies as a general principle. But the identity of the politician in suspicion can make matters even more consequential due to established histories of such allegations leading to discrimination, internment and even death for members of their community.

For example, accusing a Japanese MP of secretly working for Japan would be worse in many ways than doing so for an English MP, due in part to Canada’s history of interning Japanese people during the Second World War. Such allegations against Chinese MPs are just as serious given the history of Sinophobia here in the form of the so-called “yellow peril,” as well as how this later merged with a racist brand of anti-communism. Of course, this racism continues today, and has spiked throughout the pandemic.

With this in mind, accusing a Chinese MP of secretly working for China is inherently racist unless you can meet a high standard of proof showing it to be true. Such proof doesn’t exist in this case, and the fact that so many reporters and politicians think it does is further proof that racism has shaped the coverage.

Multiculturalism, Unless…

An aspect of the reporting that hinges on racist assumptions is that the politicians mentioned, all from mainland China, are suspicious because of their supposed “close” ties to the Chinese consulate.

For example, in their report on Dong, Global News cites its CSIS sources as claiming that he “frequently called Chinese officials in Ontario and ‘was considered a close friend of the Toronto Consulate.’” There are some obvious questions here that Global News doesn’t address, such as, what counts as “frequently”? What baseline is used as a comparison to make that judgement? Did they come up with it, or did their CSIS sources? Who considered him to be a close friend of the consulate? Was it the consulate itself, or the agents?

Setting those questions aside, the article also fails to explore potential reasons for these calls. For example, from 2014 to 2018, Dong was the MPP for the Trinity—Spadina riding in Ontario. Chinese people are the largest ethnic group in the area, which also includes Toronto’s old Chinatown and China’s consulate. Dong’s current riding, Don Valley North, is 29 per cent Chinese, by far the largest ethnic group. (Both Ke and former Liberal MPP Michael Chan, another politician accused of being too close to China, also represent areas with significant Chinese populations. Ke is the MPP for Don Valley North, and Chan was the MPP for Markham-Unionville and is now the deputy mayor of Markham, reported at 59.2 per cent Chinese.) As I’ve written previously, perhaps Dong’s relationship with the consulate came as a result of being a political representative in an area and serving a significant Chinese population.

Another explanation is that Dong is currently a co-chair of the Canada-China Legislative Association, a federal government association which describes its function as promoting “the exchange of information between Canadian parliamentarians, representatives of the National Peoples’ Congress of the Peoples’ Republic of China and diplomats posted in China and in Canada.” I’d assume this entails calls with Chinese officials, and indeed, Dong has cited this as one of the reasons for them (with the other being Chinese New Year). Yet instead of examining these possibilities, the Global News article, and apparently the CSIS leakers, just assume that an MP born in China being in touch with Chinese government officials is evidence that he’s compromised.

This isn’t a standard applied to many other communities in Canada. As I wrote two weeks ago, “It’s hard to imagine Global ever using a Jewish MP’s relationship with the Israeli consulate to smear them as a fifth columnist.” This is partly because the media is aware of the history of the dual loyalty trope, and as such, wouldn’t make such allegations without explicit proof. No such grace is extended to Chinese politicians. Racism is apparent in the double standard.

Some may argue this difference exists because Israel is one of Canada’s political allies while China is an enemy. That certainly does play some part, but it doesn’t dispel accusations of racism. What good is Canada’s supposed acceptance and multiculturalism if immigrants are required to openly hate their country of origin or otherwise be met with scorn and suspicion, just because of current diplomatic relations between it and the Canadian government?

What Standard Of Proof?

I stated above that an accusation of dual loyalties against a Chinese politician in Canada would be inherently racist unless it is proven. Despite several published reports from Global News making these allegations, they haven’t been proven.

The first allegation made against Dong is that he was part of the supposed 2019 interference efforts by China, including the transfer of money to federal candidates. CSIS has explicitly denied that these money transfers took place and that the candidates were compromised. Global News also explicitly notes it “has not confirmed the CSIS allegations in this story.” (The allegations actually came from a supposed CSIS leaker, not CSIS itself.)

The second allegation, also from Global News, is that Dong indirectly advised China to keep Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig locked up. The day after Global News’ story was released, the Globe published one explaining that they didn’t report the allegations about Dong because they weren’t able to review a recording or transcript of the call he had with the Chinese diplomat (which it appears Global News also failed to do). The Globe also reported that a senior government source told them the Prime Minister’s Office did review this transcript, and found no “actionable evidence” against Dong.

The rest of the allegations made against Dong by Global News largely consist of the sort of double standards and racist assumptions that I’ve described. They aren’t backed by any real proof. As such, I don’t believe Global News cleared the high bar to make such allegations.

But the fact that Global News feels it did is revealing of the role racism plays in Canadian media as well.

Editorial standards at Canadian publications don’t seem to exist when it comes to many countries and areas of the world, and the people from them. At the peak of standards, you have the United States and Western European countries, which are generally treated with what passes for careful, nuanced coverage in corporate media. From there out, it declines, especially when it comes to states considered to be Canadian enemies (which the media often also treats as enemies). China is well down this list.

Part of the reason why this happens (even accounting for short-staffed newsrooms, budget cuts, a lack of foreign offices, etc.) is that the stereotypes of these countries are so embedded and the vilification of them so intense that reporters feel they don’t need to apply the same standards as they would to other places, because they just know that what they’re writing is true. And worse, they (often rightfully) assume much of their audience will feel the same way.

The Mainland China Diaspora

As I mentioned earlier, the reporting has contained racist depictions of large parts of the Chinese community, not just the politicians in question. In order to demonstrate this, I will take a look at two narratives that have emerged regarding the 2021 federal election.

Both of these narratives contain similar starting points, including that the number of Chinese people in some key voting areas in Canada is increasing, that these voters can wield considerable influence in crucial races and that in 2021 many of them who previously voted Conservative gave their support to the Liberals. Three days after the 2021 election, iPolitics published an article with the headline “Chinese-Canadian voters swing results in usually Tory ridings.” The Mainstreet Research polling firm found that support from Chinese Canadians for the three major parties came in at 43 per cent Liberal, 25 per cent Conservative and 24 per cent NDP, and that, according to the firm’s CEO, “More than two-thirds of (this community) supporting non-Conservative candidates was highly unusual.”

It’s at this point that these narratives diverge.

The first narrative attributes much of this shift to a feeling among Chinese Canadians that the Conservative Party attacked their community and even put them in danger, particularly given the anti-Asian wave of hate crimes that took place in the leadup to the election.

For example, a member of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice told iPolitics, as paraphrased by the outlet, that “Chinese-Canadians felt attacked and blamed the Conservative party.” In addition, a former Vancouver city councillor claimed that former prime minister Stephen Harper’s government had managed to successfully court newer immigrants, but that many now have issues with the party due to its approach to China, in part because in order to get by financially in Canada they “have to maintain business, or some kind of economic linkage, with their home country.”

The National Post, meanwhile, published an entire article in October 2021 about how the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association held a press conference where they called on then-party leader Erin O’Toole to resign, alleging his party’s rhetoric and stances on China “alienated Chinese-Canadian voters and cost the party three seats in last month’s election.” The Post reports that a spokesperson for the group told the conference: “When you keep on attacking China, it sometimes translates as attacking the Chinese community.”

This sort of shift in voting patterns from a marginalized group feeling under attack has happened before. Perhaps the most notable example is that following 9/11 and the ensuing Islamophobia, Muslims in the U.S. shifted toward voting Democrat. In 2000, according to a poll, about 42 per cent of Muslims voted for Republican candidate George W. Bush (compared to just 31 per cent for Democratic candidate Al Gore). A 2004 poll taken in advance of the election, meanwhile, found that just 7 per cent planned to vote for Bush in comparison to more than three quarters who claimed they’d vote for Democratic candidate John Kerry. The most commonly cited reason for this shift was Islamophobia and anti-Muslim policies. As the War on Terror rhetoric here has shifted to fear mongering on China, so have the consequences for parties promoting it.

The second narrative, meanwhile, essentially claims China’s government tricked Chinese Canadians into voting for its supposedly preferred candidates. This narrative hinges on a racist perception of mainland Chinese immigrants, positioning them as somehow being more susceptible to propaganda than other groups and largely incapable of independent thought, thus making them easy to exploit. Here are some examples where the presence of mainland Chinese people in Canada is portrayed as being useful to China.

  • “‘If you are ordinary Canadians, at least you will find [criticism of a proposed Foreign Registry] ridiculous, and you may potentially be able to fact check this information,’ [former MP Kenny Chiu] said. ‘But some of my constituents, they exclusively rely on the source of information being circulated on social media, like WeChat.’” – The Globe and Mail (February 20)
  • “China employed disinformation campaigns and proxies connected to Chinese-Canadian organizations in Vancouver and the GTA, which have large mainland Chinese immigrant communities, to voice opposition to the Conservatives and favour the Trudeau Liberals.” – The Globe and Mail (February 17)
  • “‘Our party was seeing clear signs of tampering in ridings with substantial Chinese diasporas,’ [Walied Soliman, co-chair of the 2021 Conservative election campaign] said.” – The Globe and Mail (February 18)

The idea is that these immigrants were presented with so-called disinformation by China (in effect meaning news outlets with vague “links” to the Chinese government, which I have picked apart before, and found to be very shallow), and that this determined how they voted.

In addition to the implications of being brainwashed, this narrative also claims these immigrants care too much about their homeland. Here’s an example from Chiu, who spoke with the National Post in 2019: “‘Chinese-Canadian politicians, meanwhile, have to be cognizant that recent Chinese immigrants are mostly products of the mainland Communist regime, said Kenny Chiu, a losing 2015 federal Conservative candidate in B.C. […] ‘There are many immigrants coming to Canada who are actually very proud of the development that has occurred in the motherland.’”

This sort of reporting portrays something normal (an appreciation for where you came from) as threatening because of the community involved. To make the point especially clear, contrast this with coverage of Ukrainians in Canada, who are cheered on and positively profiled for keeping up with what’s going on in Ukraine, and also explicitly courted by politicians in the hopes of winning their votes.

This reporting also positions other things that are commonly celebrated in Canada as being nefarious, such as getting marginalized groups and new immigrants to become engaged with the political system, wanting more members of your community to be represented in political office, etc. All of the so-called celebration of representation and diversity is thrown out of the window because the group in question is regarded as suspicious. That is racist.

In sum, I find the first narrative outlined here to be far more convincing than the second, which largely hinges on far fetched conspiracy theories and racist assumptions. It’s a shame that Global News and the Globe have largely focused on this second narrative.

Before ending this article, I want to address the argument that claims of this reporting being racist are just cynically crafted accusations coming from those under suspicion to avoid being held to account.

Politicians absolutely aren’t above doing such a thing. For example, in recent weeks, elected members of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Party accused critics of their plan to allow construction in the Greenbelt of anti-Italian racism, a truly bizarre allegation that has no basis in reality.

But this claim about the  Chinese interference story ignores that the majority of those identifying the reporting as racist aren’t involved in the scandal in any way or even supporters of the Liberal Party (myself included). In addition, it avoids the fact that the claims in question here have little merit and can be debunked without any reference to racism.

Perhaps most importantly, this claim dodges another question entirely: Are the former elected officials who lost to the accused cynically employing (or at least not pushing back against) racist tropes to obscure the fact that their constituents decided they did poor jobs and didn’t want them back? If the accused could be wielding allegations of racism for personal benefit, couldn’t the losers be doing the same with racist tropes for their own purposes?

I will continue following this story. To read more about why the story doesn’t make sense thus far based on the evidence itself, you can check out the following articles I have written: