Chinese Canadians in public office and academia are warning the recent claims China interfered in Canadian politics could stigmatize an entire community and dissuade them from running for public office or taking on public-facing roles.
“There is a lot of fear,” said Keren Tang, a city councillor in Edmonton.
Tang and others in the Chinese community are worried racism resulting from the federal investigations into the alleged Chinese government interference could roll back years of progress of getting more diverse voices in all levels of government.
An immigrant to Canada herself, and one of the first diverse women elected to council in the city, Tang wonders if she could be accused of having links to Beijing simply because of her background.
“I can almost sense some of the stereotypes that might come with it,” she said. “Or the questioning and skepticism. ‘Oh, are you one of them,'” she said.
Politicians accused of ties to Beijing
The concern comes on the heels of several media reports China meddled in Canada’s last two elections while Justin Trudeau has tasked former governor general David Johnston with deciding whether there should be a public inquiry into the possible foreign interference.
Ontario MPP Vincent Ke resigned his seat in the Progressive Conservative caucus and is now sitting as an independent after he was accused of having ties to the Chinese Communist Party. He has denied the claims.
Meanwhile, Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, the city’s first mayor of Chinese descent, denounced what he called “insinuations” made in a Globe and Mail report linking him to claims Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) found evidence the Chinese consulate in Vancouver interfered in last year’s municipal election.
“If I was a Caucasian male, we’re not having this conversation,” said Sim, in a press conference March 16.
Most recently, Don Valley North MP Han Dong was named by Global News alleging he advised a Chinese diplomat that Beijing should hold off on freeing Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor — two Canadians being held by China at the time.
Dong has since announced plans to sue Global News.
‘A climate of fear’
Amidst these reports, academics are warning that the leaks to media, and the ensuing investigations, are a “slippery slope” that’s leading to “suspicion and a climate of fear.”
“It will create a chilling effect for anyone considering running for office … anyone actually considering being in the public eye,” said Henry Yu, a history professor specializing in migration, race and colonialism at the University of British Columbia.
Yu warns that Chinese Canadians face some unique hurdles because of the way they look and their family background, using the rise in racism during the COVID-19 pandemic as an example.
“It doesn’t happen in the same way to people from other countries,” he said.
He says that will ultimately dissuade Chinese Canadians from pursuing public life.
“What we don’t want is for people to understand running for public life as a negative — that your life is potentially going to be ruined by people besmirching you and accusing you.”
Yu is one of nine signatories of an open letter to David Johnston expressing concern any investigation into foreign meddling in Canadian elections could trigger “toxic” discussions against people of Chinese descent.
The scholars, who are advisers for the University of Victoria’s discussion forum on Canada-China relations, argue the investigations led by Johnston may “further indiscriminate and unsubstantiated accusations of loyalty, subversion or treason against Chinese Canadians.”
They are calling on Johnston to promote anti-racism education for all public servants and expand the investigation to include other countries that could be doing the same in Canada, as to not single out China.
Other academics warn Ottawa needs to strike a balance between getting to the truth of the meddling while getting out the message that not all Chinese people in Canada are complicit, since the diaspora is comprised of many diverse views on the Chinese government.
“There needs to be proactive measures to encourage Chinese Canadians to participate in politics without fear,” said Diana Fu, associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto.
Fu points out ethnic Chinese are already reluctant to participate in or discuss politics openly because of the “cultural legacy” that politics is dangerous and risky, considering China’s history.
While the investigation won’t dissuade Jack Yan from considering another run, the former Toronto mayoral candidate in the 2022 municipal election is certain it will affect others’ decisions.
“If there is this misconception that you’re somehow being controlled by some foreign government, then you know there’s less chance of winning,” he said.
For Edmonton councillor Tang, it’s also about undoing the hard work of getting more representation at all levels of government, and in the community. She said she has even heard from people organizing cultural events in the city, who say they’re afraid.
“I would hate for something like this to set back the progress we have made,” she said.