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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as he takes in a view of the Great Wall of China, in Beijing on Thursday, September 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as he takes in a view of the Great Wall of China, in Beijing on Thursday, September 1, 2016. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

politics

China trip may help Trudeau win Chinese-Canadian votes Add to ...

As Justin Trudeau tries to build economic ties during his first state visit to China, he may also be helping himself a little with a political goal back home: breaking through with the country’s largest immigrant group.

Among the very few disappointments for Mr. Trudeau’s campaign team, in last year’s election, was how their party fared with Chinese-Canadians. Liberal candidates did as well or better with just about every other demographic as they could reasonably hope; this was one with which they struggled, and the Conservatives retained strength, more than they anticipated.

Markham-Unionville, with the highest concentration of Chinese-Canadian voters of any riding nationally, was one of the very few Greater Toronto Area seats where the Liberals failed to top the Tories – and, according to members of Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle, the only seat in the country they wrongly expected to win.

The one other riding where more than half of eligible voters are of Chinese descent, the Vancouver-area Richmond Centre, also proved beyond their grasp; narrower-than-expected margins in a few ridings they did win, notably in Toronto’s inner-suburb of Scarborough, suggested a pattern.

It’s one the Liberals need to break, as the country’s largest immigrant population – 1.5 million and growing – could yet be the difference in a close election.

Related: 'Lick your screens': China’s press, social media fawn over 'celebrity' Trudeau

Related: Trudeau in China: Focus shifts to human rights after ambassador’s rebuke to Beijing

But there are no shortcuts, in the form of goodwill from foreign trips or anything else, to breaking through. Based on conversations with party organizers who have worked on the ground in Chinese communities, the reality is more an array of complex factors that the Liberals will have to work hard to change.

Underscoring the nuance is a key distinction between families who came from Hong Kong, mostly through to the 1980s, and those who have come from mainland China in the past couple of decades. The general consensus is that the Liberals tended to do better with the former and the Conservatives with the latter in last year’s vote.

While that may have helped the Liberals at least significantly narrow the gap from 2011 in a riding like Richmond Centre, where many of the Chinese-Canadian voters have Hong Kong roots, it’s of little consolation since even there those voters are increasingly being overwhelmed by waves of mainland emigrants.

The Liberals’ election postmortems seemed to leave them with all sorts of explanations for why they’ve struggled with the newer arrivals.

The most popular of those explanations, among Mr. Trudeau’s top officials, is social conservatism. The Conservatives made a concerted effort to convince immigrant voters (not just Chinese-Canadians) that the Liberals would allow the sale of marijuana to children; in Ontario, the Liberals also had to contend with controversy around their provincial cousins’ sex-education changes.

While such concerns may have gotten traction among evangelicals with Hong Kong roots, Liberals say they especially heard about them from mainlanders new enough to Canada to be worried about the radicalism of a party they had not seen much (if at all) in power.

Those issues may have penetrated partly because the Tories out-advertised the Liberals in Chinese-Canadian media. And Conservative-friendly ownership of leading outlets such as Fairchild TV and the Sing Tao Daily newspaper helped the Tories get more positive earned media than the Liberals in primary news sources for many relative newcomers – if not as it related to hot-button social issues, then in how the leaders and their agendas were generally presented.

That ties into a whole bunch of other explanations floating around. The Liberals’ polling, according to a source familiar with it, suggested former mainlanders were receptive to what some other Canadians saw as Stephen Harper’s authoritarian streak, considering him a much stronger leader than Mr. Trudeau.

A veteran organizer in the Chinese community suggested economic conservatism was borne of relatively affluent recent arrivals being concerned about their assets’ safety from government intrusion. Just as earlier waves of immigrants had a positive association with the Liberals because that party was in power when they got here, more recent ones might have felt that way about the Tories.

Merely having won government may help the Liberals with that last factor, and some of the others besides. They can set to rest some of the more extravagant fears about their social liberalism by not legislating like radicals. Mr. Trudeau will seem stronger just by virtue of his office.

A trip like this week’s is a prime opportunity to forge better relations with Mandarin media outlets, while also getting copious coverage in them. (Although it also runs the risk of alienating some of their supporters who came here from Hong Kong, and are wary of Canada’s government cozying up to the Middle Kingdom.)

But there is also an underlying reality that belies quick fixes, and will test the Liberals’ commitment to their “hope and hard work” mantra to winning over voters.

In a span of about three years leading into last year’s election, Mr. Trudeau proved able to make up for lost time in courting a range of immigrant communities the Liberals had taken for granted since his father’s era, and for whose support the Tories under Mr. Harper vastly outhustled them.

But connecting with Chinese-Canadians, especially those from the mainland, demands of parties a special level of persistence and patience. People who come from a place where there is no democratic tradition, and where expressing political views is perilous, are often understandably reluctant to actively engage in their new country – even just in telling canvassers how they intend to vote, let alone volunteering themselves.

Relative to other immigrant groups, there are also fewer opportunities to court large numbers of people at once. The limited reach of evangelical churches notwithstanding, there are no places of worship that serve as community hubs. Events and activities accessible to campaigning politicians are diffuse. Although there are certainly political power brokers, their influence over voters seems limited.

Although there is no definitive research available to back it up, political organizers on all sides believe voter turnout among Chinese-Canadians – again, especially relatively recent mainland emigrants – tends to be much lower than the national average. That can make it a tempting demographic in which to invest less effort than with others.

But the Tories didn’t do that during the Harper era, with Jason Kenney – for whom few community gatherings seemed too small to turn up at – leading a consistent and concerted effort to build relationships and spread the Conservative word both in person and through Mandarin and Cantonese social media. The former PM, generally not much for retail politics, joined Mr. Kenney in personal outreach. Even as some other organizational aspects of Mr. Harper’s campaign were collapsing last fall, the Tories were all over Chinese-Canadian communities in a way the Liberals struggled to match.

With Mr. Harper now gone from the federal scene, and Mr. Kenney about to be, the Tories may struggle – or neglect – to build off the positive association they achieved.

Whether the Liberals remain seized with painstakingly making their case is no less an open question. Winning over Chinese-Canadians was not a primary consideration behind Mr. Trudeau’s current trip, but it could be telling how he subsequently tries to leverage it.

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