Two big things happened this week – one in the realm of international politics, the other in the experiences of millions of Canadians and Americans. They should have been unrelated. They have been directly related, though, because too often we confuse them in our politics and our journalism and our public attitudes under the dangerously vague heading “the Chinese.”
The first was a long-awaited drawing of lines between the world’s major democracies and Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party government. Canada joined the United States, Britain and the European Union’s 27 countries in imposing sanctions against four officials and one state corporation over well-documented human-rights abuses of the Uyghur minority in China’s Xinjiang region. It was timed to coincide with the closed-door show trials of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been held as de facto hostages by Beijing for more than 800 days.
The sanctions, while very unlikely to provoke any significant change, mark an important beginning: It is at least a partial reversal of the performative every-country-for-itself flailing and dangerous militarism of the world in which Donald Trump was the U.S. president.
Thanks largely to the change of leadership in the United States, we now have an ad hoc coalition of the world’s largest economies – comprising almost 900 million citizens, and likely to grow – making measured gestures with goals and national interests in mind. Canada has also announced tougher controls on state-connected agencies taking over Canadian companies. It will take a lot more to reverse the hostile drift in Mr. Xi’s international stand (never mind his domestic policies), but at least it’s specific and realistic.
The second big thing didn’t involve Mr. Xi or anyone in China. It was the voices of Canadians and Americans whose ancestors came from China and other East Asian countries speaking up about the increase in verbal and sometimes violent discrimination.
This was provoked by a mass shooting in Atlanta in which the victims were mainly East Asian women. It released pent-up frustration from Chinese-Canadians who have felt personally victimized by public responses to economic, geopolitical and epidemiological developments that have nothing to do with them.
This is confirmed by the data. One study, by Pollara Stategic Insights, found that Canadians’ attitudes toward most ethnic and racial minorities in the past year haven’t changed much – with the big exception of Chinese and other East Asians, who have been subjected to a visible rise in self-reported intolerance.
A big part of it was the deliberate decision by Mr. Trump, as well as like-minded Canadians, to call COVID-19 the “China virus” and attribute its emergence to “the Chinese.”
This habit of conflating a foreign government with an entire group is certainly not confined to the pandemic, though.
Eleven years ago, the head of Canada’s spy agency publicly declared that several unspecified Canadian politicians were agents of a foreign government; he made it clear he was speaking about China. But because he never named any, and his agency never brought any evidence to support charges, his action put hundreds of Canadian politicians of Chinese descent under permanent suspicion. This dark moment in Canadian intelligence is one of many such proclamations that have created a public sense that any citizen with a Chinese name or face could be disloyal to Canada.
In recent years, it became popular among those in the media and academia to blame Vancouver’s housing crisis on “the Chinese” – in a city where about 20 per cent of residents identify as ethnic Chinese – even though it should have been clear that low interest rates and limited housing supply were far more significant factors in the surge in prices, which continued after anti-“foreigner” measures were taken. The damage is done.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in a TV interview this week, managed to both acknowledge this problem and provide an inadvertent example. He spoke of a “confluence of events that include a more assertive and aggressive China on the world stage, combined with a global pandemic that had its origins in China, that is putting extra pressure on the Chinese-Canadian community, and on Asian-Canadians in general, in ways that are quite frankly unacceptable.”
While the sentiment is welcome, you do have to ask if there’s any other ethnic group for whom a discussion of racial attacks at home inevitably references a country associated with them. Would a discussion of anti-Semitic attacks involve a mention of Benjamin Netanyahu? If Arabs face threats here, do we find it necessary to mention Mohammed bin Salman’s crimes?
Our habit of mixing up our frustration with the regime that has controlled China for 71 years with a group of people who have been integral to the fabric of Canada since its founding has put more than a million Canadians of Chinese ethnicity at risk. We need to be more precise – and more careful.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.