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No, Mr. Xi, Chinese-Canadians aren’t agents of your party

Canadians with Chinese backgrounds learned two things about themselves this week.

First, they learned that they are a major part of Canada. Wednesday's release of 2016 census data revealed that there are now 1.6 million Canadians who say they're ethnically Chinese (and 1.2 million who can speak a Chinese language). Chinese-Canadians have been a big part of this country since before Confederation; these numbers show what an integral part of Canada they have become.

Second, they learned that they are also a major part of the Communist Party of China. Or, rather, that the party and its increasingly autocratic leader, President Xi Jinping, want Chinese-Canadians, however long their families have been here, to see themselves that way.

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This week, Mr. Xi used the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China not only to turn himself into an unchallenged leader-in-perpetuity, but also to amend the party's constitution to create a "guide to action for the entire Party and all the Chinese people to strive for the great rejuvenation of the Chinese race." (The phrase zhonghua minzu is translated into English by the party as "Chinese nation," but its meaning is "Chinese race" or "Chinese ethnicities").

The policy implications were made clear earlier this year by Premier Li Keqiang: "The Chinese race is a big family and feelings of love for the motherland, passion for the homeland, are infused in the blood of every single person with Chinese ancestry."

This, most observers agreed, marks the apex of Mr. Xi's effort to turn China into an ethnic state – and the rest of the world's 50 million Chinese-descended people as being part of the nation, the "big family" and the party.

"Beijing is now displaying the warning signs of an emerging ethnonationalist power," analysts Harry Krejsa and Anthony Cho wrote this week. "It is actively trying to co-opt a massive and far-flung diaspora to advance its foreign policy goals."

That puts Chinese-Canadians in an awkward and compromised position – one that Canadians of Jewish, Italian, Turkish and Russian backgrounds will recognize, as they've been similarly manipulated by parties and movements in their putative homelands.

On one hand, Chinese-Canadians now face constant pressure from Beijing to conform to a form of loyalty and nationalism that has nothing to do with their Canadian lives.

That was revealed dramatically in a Financial Times investigation this week that found Beijing's sprawling United Front Work Department is aggressively buying influence in diaspora politics; one document showed it boasting that a record 10 of 44 Chinese-Canadian candidates in the 2006 Toronto municipal election had won, and recommending that the party try to influence them (there is no suggestion that any of them had any contact or relationship with the party).

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On the other hand, it means that any Canadian with a Chinese surname is now potentially suspected by the public, the media and the government's security agencies of having dual loyalties. Yes, there really are Beijing-financed spies and provocateurs and agents working in Canada. Those are criminal matters. But Mr. Xi's intrigues should not be taken to mean that there's any reason to suspect Chinese-Canadians of being disloyal or un-Canadian – even if they happen to support Mr. Xi's regime.

The fact is that members of ethnic diasporas often support parties, movements and causes in their country of origin that they would never dream of backing at home. The reasons are symbolic and sentimental: When you're not living in the country and subject to the party's policies, the stakes are low. People back the ethnic "winners" who make them feel good about themselves.

Last year, for example, Filipino-Canadians came out in droves to vote for ultraviolent strongman leader Rodrigo Duterte. Huge numbers of Greek-Canadians marched in support of Greece's ridiculous move to strip the country of Macedonia of its name. A lot of Russian-Canadians support Vladimir Putin. Suburban Jewish-Canadians have a lot of time for the worst elements of Israel's Likud Party. A lot of my fellow British-Canadians voted for Brexit, in spite of my entreaties.

What is important is that those sentiments do not translate into similar politics within Canada. And they overwhelmingly don't. Those Canadian Filipinos and Russians and Greeks and Jews and Chinese overwhelmingly vote, support and run as candidates in moderate branches of the Conservative and Liberal parties (and occasionally the NDP or the Greens). The surprising numbers of diaspora Turks who voted Yes on a Turkish referendum last year to grant president Recep Tayyip Erdogan near-dictatorial powers have never supported similar politics at home: They almost unanimously back liberal, social-democratic and Green parties in the West.

The people voting for autocratic, ethnonationalist parties and candidates in the West – the parties whose ideas most closely resemble those of Mr. Xi or Mr. Putin or Mr. Erdogan – aren't the people of Chinese or Russian or Turkish background. They're guys who look like me. If we're worried about autocratic and un-Canadian ideas infiltrating our political system, we need to be looking a lot closer to home.

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