Oct 26, 2021 - World

How unheeded warnings about China are now hurting Chinese Canadians

Illustration of a depressed looking man with a Canadian flag in the background

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

For years Canadian officials prioritized trade with China and ignored warnings from Chinese Canadians that the Chinese government presented a serious political and moral challenge, a Canadian journalist argues in a new book.

Why it matters: An earlier response by democratic governments could have relieved the pressure on Chinese diaspora communities and sent a strong message to Beijing that exporting authoritarianism wouldn't be tolerated.

Details: In her book "China Unbound: A New World Disorder," Canadian journalist and former China correspondent Joanna Chiu offers a globe-trotting view of China's ties with Canada, Australia, the U.S., Greece, Italy, Turkey and Russia.

  • Chiu finds governments and societies often oversimplify narratives regarding China — some Americans, for example, believe the Chinese Communist Party poses an unambiguous existential threat, and some Italian politicians claim Chinese investment can save the country's failing economy. The truth is rarely so black and white.
  • Anti-Chinese racism, too, has been overly simplified and insufficiently understood, Chiu states. Tougher policies and confrontational rhetoric on China can make the lives of people in AAPI communities in western countries more difficult.
  • But western leaders might have become aware of Beijing's goals sooner if they hadn't prioritized narrow business interests and had instead paid attention when people of Chinese descent living in the west were harassed, censored, and unjustly detained for long periods of time in China, Chiu argues.

What she's saying: "Right now there's a narrative that goes, if you don’t want to be racist and if you want to avoid further marginalizing the diaspora, then you shouldn't say or do anything about Beijing’s actions. But that actually erases decades of warnings and diverse lived experiences of people in the diaspora," Chiu told me in an interview.

  • Concern about the erasure of Chinese diaspora perspectives is widely held among researchers who study the Chinese Communist Party's political interference activities abroad.
  • In her reporting, Chiu spoke with Chinese students living in Canada who faced threats from China's security services and surveillance from the Chinese embassy, part of an overseas expansion of the Chinese Communist Party's influence arm the United Front Work Department.
  • She also spoke with a Chinese Canadian community leader whose years of grassroots work to get Chinese Canadian voices heard was drowned out by a new organization with an almost identical name that was supported by the Chinese embassy and that tended to issue press releases making opposite claims.

When Chiu tried to report threats made against her in Canada for reports she had published about Xinjiang, a spokesperson for Canada’s Minister of Public Safety told Chiu the government “takes threats to the security of individuals living in Canada very seriously” and said people should report incidents to local police.

Driving the news: Canada-China ties are up in the air after a nearly three-year diplomatic standoff finally ended just weeks ago with Canada's release of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, wanted by the U.S. for fraud charges, and China's subsequent release of Canadian political hostages Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.

  • Chiu knew Kovrig personally and was relieved at his release. But in an August article, she also criticized Canada's lack of a response when in previous years, Canadian citizens of Chinese descent had been similarly detained in China. "If China hadn’t targeted white Canadians, would Chinese-Canadian relations be business as usual?" Chiu asked.

Background: Anti-Chinese sentiment spiked globally during the COVID pandemic, but it's nothing new. Chinese people have a long history of maltreatment at the hands of western countries, something Chiu's family has personally experienced.

  • Chiu's great-great-great-grandfather came to Canada in the 19th century, tricked into believing he could mine for gold, but instead found he was only permitted to do grueling manual labor for low pay on the Canadian Pacific Railway.
  • Discriminatory immigration policies made it nearly impossible for him to bring his family with him, so he ended up going back to China with few savings. Chiu herself was born in Hong Kong and came to Canada as a small child.

The bottom line: "What is needed is getting people in the diaspora into positions of influence and power, rather than using them as an excuse to continue with business as usual with China," Chiu told Axios.

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