Chinese Canadians in the aftermath of COVID-19


Chinese Canadians in the aftermath of COVID-19

The Honourable Yuen Pau Woo

Even as the country prepares for a second wave of COViD-19 infections, a debate is emerging about whether the disruptions to Canadian society and economy since March 2020 are temporary or permanent, and if governments should plan on a return to “normal” or something very different.


One of the key lessons of COVID-19 is that the virus has affected different segments of society differently, with minority groups bearing the brunt of infection, due to economic and social circumstances which put them at greater risk of exposure.  


What about Chinese Canadians? There is evidence to suggest that Canadians of Chinese descent had lower rates of infection compared to the general population -- contrary to expectations, given the higher likelihood of community members travelling to hot spots in China.  For example, infection rates in Richmond, B.C. -- with its majority ethnic Chinese population -- were significantly lower than in surrounding municipalities.  Epidemiologists put the lower infection rates down to measures taken voluntarily by the Chinese community to don face masks well before public health officials advocated the use of such, and an early willingness to accept social distancing as a necessary precaution to control infection.  This reflex in the community likely stems from direct experience with SARS, which raged across Asia in 1997, resulting in a higher comfort level with face masks and intrusive social isolation policies.


While face masks may have been an important reason why communities with heavy concentrations of ethnic Chinese were less likely to be infected with COVID-19, this humble accessory also turned into a lightning rod of animosity towards some Chinese Canadians.  In the early days of the pandemic, wearers of face masks – mostly of Asian descent – were treated with a mixture of derision and ostracism by those who misinterpreted the wearing of masks as ignorant, anti-social, or a sign of illness.  


With mask mandates now commonplace across the country and around the world, this prejudice has largely faded away, but the fact that it emerged in the first place raises uncomfortable questions about intolerance in Canadian society.  Some of the vitriol towards Asian mask wearers was very likely a form of subliminal racist expression made respectable by focusing on the scourge of a virus rather than on a racial group as such (even though racist symbolism has long borrowed from the language of contagious diseases).


The mask controversy in Canada was complicated by actions on the part of Chinese community groups that organized campaigns for face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to be sent to the People’s Republic of China when the latter was at the height of its COVID-19 crisis.  By the time Canada some weeks later entered its own period of rapidly growing infections, PPE were in short supply, and a narrative emerged that Chinese Canadians were being disloyal by putting their native country ahead of Canada.  Worse, there were accusations of complicity with the Chinese government in mobilizing and sending PPE to the People’s Republic, at the expense of Canadians.  


Curiously, when some of these same groups some months later made efforts to source PPE from China for use in Canadian hospitals and seniors’ homes, they were met with skepticism about ulterior motives, claims of inferior quality products, and – again – collusion with the Chinese government.


In many ways, the most profound impact of COVID-19 on Chinese Canadians has less to do with the virus as such, and much more to do with parallel events in 2020 that did not have much direct link to the coronavirus.  Some of these factors predate COVID-19, and were magnified by the fact that the virus was initially associated with a particular racial group and country, and hence was able to flourish in a social petri dish of prejudice and fear.


Prior to COVID-19, resentment against recent immigrants from China was directed mainly at the high cost of real estate in cities such as Vancouver and Toronto.  This led to taxes and surcharges on foreign owners of Canadian property and on vacant homes in designated areas.  The result of those policies so far, it would seem, has been to make some of the most expensive homes in greater Vancouver more affordable for the very rich, but the foreign buyers’ and vacancy tax has done very little to improve housing affordability for average Canadians.


COVID-19 provided a fresh outlet for resentment against Chinese (and other Asians/indigenous peoples who look “Chinese”), with many incidents of physical and verbal abuse reported across the country, and a host of efforts by community groups to combat these acts of racism.  Just as mainstream attention was starting to recognize the problem of COVID-related discrimination against Asians, the spotlight on systemic racism shifted dramatically and profoundly after the George Floyd murder in the United States, which provoked a massive national reckoning about the plight of African Canadians. Anti-Asian racism efforts quickly aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement but many of these groups felt the need to downplay their previous focus on discrimination against Asians, for fear of being misinterpreted as a “competing” anti-racism initiative.


There is of course no reason why minority groups cannot work together on the systemic racism that all of them face, and there are many productive alliances that attempt to do so.  The reality, however, is that many of the challenges faced by Chinese Canadians are quite different from those faced by Black Canadians, and the key to combating racism across society is to not only work on common issues but to also identify challenges that are specific to affected communities.


The most important factor in anti-Chinese racism today is anti-China sentiment. This is true both for Chinese Canadians who are sympathetic to Beijing and those who are opposed to the Communist regime.  While the Chinese community in Canada has always had a diversity of views on the PRC, Taiwan, HK, and the broader Chinese world, anti-Chinese racism has tended to not make a distinction among the different sub-communities.  Hostility towards wealthy mainlanders buying up expensive homes in tony Vancouver suburbs in recent years is not much different from the hostility towards Hong Kong and Taiwanese immigrants who did the same 30 years earlier.


There is, however, an increasingly public split between the most vocal of Chinese Canadian supporters of the PRC and those who identify with Hong Kong and Taiwan. This split has been laid bare by Beijing’s imposition of a National Security Law in Hong Kong, which is deeply unpopular among Hong Kong residents and their many relatives in Canada.  The issue has spilled into the political arena, with calls for the Canadian government to impose sanctions against Chinese officials who have suppressed protests in Hong Kong and for alleged abuses of human rights in other parts of China, notably Xinjiang.


Canadian public opinion towards the PRC is at its most unfavorable in decades, and there is immense pressure on all political parties to take a tougher stand towards Beijing.  The detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, apparently in retaliation for extradition actions against Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou, has only added to the sour mood towards China.  While Canada has not come close to the kind of escalating diplomatic and commercial actions by the Trump administration against China, Ottawa will be hard pressed to resist pressure from Washington, DC to treat China as, at best, a strategic rival, or increasingly, an “enemy” – regardless of who prevails in the November US Presidential election.  With virtually all public commentary in the Canadian media now lined up on the side of getting tough on China, it will take enormous political courage on the part of any government to resist such a reflex and instead focus on longer-term considerations.


The first victims of a heightened strategic rivalry between China and the US will be ethnic Chinese who are seen as suspect because of ties to the mainland.  Canada has some built-in protections against this kind of discrimination, but the weight of opinion is already shifting towards a much more skeptical attitude towards recent and former Chinese nationals in the country, such as was seen in recent discussions around “mask diplomacy”.  Indeed, a kind of “litmus test” has been set up by the media and some China commentators whereby participation in “United Front” organizations, meeting with Chinese officials, and expressing views that may align with Beijing are automatic markers of suspicion and symbols of disloyalty to Canada.


It is not that the community should have one voice on issues related to the PRC and Ottawa’s relations with Beijing.  On the contrary, the diversity of opinion is healthy and essential in the formulation of Canadian foreign policy towards China.  But it is a problem if the Chinese Canadian community is defined by its differing views on the PRC/HK/Taiwan because Chinese Canadians will come to be seen as “foreigners” advocating for issues in their motherland, rather than citizens who contribute to the totality of Canadian society – through political life, business, the professions, social service, and much more.  The tendency of Canadian politicians of all stripes to view ethnic communities as vote banks and important only insofar as they connect to “diaspora” issues is a disservice to the true meaning of multiculturalism and to the immigrants who make up multicultural Canada.


The challenge then for Chinese Canadians Post-COVID is both the same as before the crisis, and also different.  It is the same in that Chinese Canadians must not allow themselves to be defined by their ties with and views on the Chinese world.  Chinese Canadians have already demonstrated their capabilities and success in a variety of professions and pursuits, but the community as a whole is grossly underrepresented in leadership positions across politics, the justice system, corporate and not-for-profit boards, and higher education.


That is not to say that Chinese Canadians should in any way downplay their ethnicity. However, the cultural identity of Chinese Canadians and the organizations that purport to represent them should not be defined by a government (whether Beijing, Taipei, or Ottawa).  The Chinese Canadian community can and should express its rich cultural heritage without the need for approval from or association with governmental authorities, least of all the People’s Republic of China.  


At the same time, Chinese Canadians must not allow distrust of the PRC and strategic rivalry with Beijing led by the United States to force their own “decoupling” with the Chinese world – whether in business, scholarship, philanthropy, cultural relations, or other fields of endeavor.  Whatever reservations the Canadian government may have with China on specific problems related to Hong Kong, Xinjiang, extradition, and hostages, it is important for civil society to maintain and strengthen ties with counterparts in Greater China.  


What is different, however, is that the pressure to disengage with China will grow in the immediate future, due to a mixture of perceived self-protection, a desire to retaliate, repugnance over Chinese actions within its own borders, and fears about national security.  More than ever, a longer-term view of Canada’s interests vis-a-vis China, and indeed a longer-term view of China’s place in the world, is needed. Chinese Canadians can be an important contributor to that conversation.



September 2020

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