by Francis Chin
Given the provincial election in British Columbia is soon underway, and the federal NDP leadership race is gaining steam, it’s timely to ponder why the NDP always having trouble getting electoral support from Chinese Canadian voters.
Let’s break down our five major factors:
No.1: Not enough effort in understanding the Chinese community.
The Chinese-Canadian voter count is low for all political parties because voter turnout within this ethnicity has generally been low. In fact, the turnout for eligible Chinese-Canadian voters is probably the lowest among all Canadian ethnic groups due to historical and cultural reasons. However, other major parties somehow still able to find their Chinese bases. For example, especially the federal Conservatives have built up great connections with some of the Chinese churches in order to create a strong political force in the community – also known as “the evangelical aunties”.
The NDP doesn’t have a Chinese base. Probably the only exception in BC is Vancouver East. However, this base has shown support mainly for the candidate, Jenny Kwan, rather than the NDP. For instance, if Ms. Kwan were to run for office as a federal Conservative or (previously BC Liberal) there, the Chinese votes would probably go to the Conservatives. If Ms. Kwan were to run for office as a Green there, those Chinese votes would probably go to the Greens.
The Chinese-Canadian community is not only massive but also fragmented, and it could be along the lines of ideology, economic status, cultural status, and geography. Even age differences can make people’s values significantly different. If 20 years represents one generation gap in other communities, the Chinese generation gap is probably every 5 years.
There should be a way for the NDP to find a base or market in this ethnic community since it’s so diverse. It simply doesn’t exist. White-collar workers who ended up doing low-paying physically-taxing jobs, future Canadians who graduated from university within 5 to 10 years ago as international students, young progressive-thinking millennials, and the list goes on and on. We will discuss in a separate article solely on NDP’s potential Chinese market in the near future.
Unlike the BC Liberals, it seems the New Democrats never made an effort to analyze their potential Chinese voters’ mentality, and have a grand strategy deal with it. I have encountered some NDP organizers insisting that “these policies are good for them but they just don’t understand”. Well, making these voters understand your policies is part of the job as party organizers rather than waiting for them to understand. Before you can “make them understand”, you have to be willing to make an effort to understand them. I’m not talking about individual candidates or their teams making a sporadic effort on their own here and there. I’m talking about the party working as a team to gain a common, concrete understanding so that consistency is maintained.
Most likely, because the Chinese-Canadian voter turnout has remained low and the NDP lacked the necessary resources compare to other major parties, this community is strategically abandoned. I don’t think this is a smart move in the long-term, since the Chinese population is huge in metro Vancouver and Toronto – maybe sufficient to determine the results of an election. Yes, most of them don’t really vote, but what if they suddenly started to vote? Modern world history has proved one thing – the Chinese pick up things faster than you can possibly imagine.
No.2: the Chinese go with the winners, so the NDP needs to behave like “winners”.
Human beings bandwagon. This is natural. Not just the Chinese-Canadians, many ethnic minorities vote for the party most likely to win, and make every effort to try to get onto that party’s good side. The fact that NDP is never in government federally and rarely at provincial level makes many Chinese feeling that engaging with this party is a waste of time.
The Chinese are smart enough to understand that if you are not in government, nothing much can be done. In other words, politicians of opposition parties are basically “political commentators without independence”. They likely think “why waste vote, money and time on them?” Federally, anti-Conservative Chinese-Canadians simply go to the Liberals since they have been in government so many times. Too bad for the New Democrats, since in politics, winning might not be everything; but without winning, you are nothing.
There’s nothing you can do to change the history but you can start acting like “winners”. In the eyes of Chinese voters, “opposition without solutions” is their impression of the NDP. They perceive the NDP as professional protesters rallying against this and that. The Chinese-Canadians understand the “anti” part but what about the solutions? At least in the Chinese community, there’s a lack of coverage about NDP’s solutions to all these problems. This is critical to the Chinese (probably to all Canadians as well). What they are looking for is a government who can provide constructive results rather than lofty idealistic values. To the Chinese (especially those from Mainland China), the lofty slogans from the Mao Zedong era are exactly those they are tuning out. And people screaming and protesting on the streets reminds them the nightmare of Cultural Revolution – having their families’ properties getting confiscated by the government state, educational opportunities taken away, and going through famine.
In other words, culturally, they prefer messages that are solid and tangible. Also, terms like “populism” imply “chaos” to them. Human beings are products of their own history. You cannot blame them to feel that way.
In short, the NDP is not perceived as “government material” to them.
No.3: The problematic image of unions
Unions are important in western society. We all get it. I can appreciate at least some of the unions’ contributions historically and presently. However, allow me to objectively analyze why many (I really mean in vast numbers) Chinese Canadians dislike the unions.
Firstly, even though there are many different unions providing different functions for different professions, the ones who attract the most attention are probably the teachers’ union, the bus drivers’ and the nurses’. As a result, these three unions basically represent “the union” to the Chinese.
Although many Chinese-Canadians belong to the working class, most of them are not unionized. Most Chinese immigrants have trouble understanding even the concept of “unions” . All they witness is that children need education but the teachers go on strike, patients are in hospitals but the nurses are on strike, and they need to commute to work but bus drivers are on strike. In Chinese culture, “teachers” and “nurses” are considered as the professions who have special duties in society. They believe teachers and nurses should keep working regardless of the circumstances. They are fearful of their children’s futures destroyed from a teachers’ strike, or patients dying because of a nurses’ strike – often in the language of “kids need education” and “patients might die”. In their eyes, money is something that can be negotiated but not at the expense of other people’s health and future.
Because of the perception that unions are placing themselves before children and patients, they believe unions in general are greedy and selfish. The Chinese understand the fact human beings are selfish but “please don’t bother our daily life”. Let’s take Chinese working class for example. Many of them work for small businesses or companies that are not unionized nor is there potential to be unionized out of the fear of losing their incomes. Their income are usually lower than school teachers and bus drivers. Whenever the NDP support all these strikes, they feel the party doesn’t speak for the poor but for union workers. A bus strike might make them, who are also poor, unable to go to work for the sake of those drivers bargaining for more income. This is a reality not just in the Chinese community but politics in general. The so-called “working class” is never a unified entity because these people’s interests are not unified.
Another important consideration is that many Chinese feel unionized workers are already well-paid. It is a habit for new Chinese immigrants to compare everything they see in Canada to the situations back in China. (Just like how the western media always compare China’s human rights condition using western standards.) Compared to China, teachers, nurses and bus drivers are getting paid way better here in Canada, even though, to be honest, the quality of these professionals might not be significantly better than those in China. This is why they feel the unions just won’t stop asking for more.
Anyway, unions is a complicated topic in general. There are other problems of the unions such as their communication with new immigrant workers. I might write about this in the future.
To summarize, because of the Chinese “understanding” of the unions, the NDP’s attachment with unions make them unfavorable in the community.
No.4: It’s the economy! Stupid.
It’s like getting rebounds in basketball or controlling the midfield in soccer. Economy is the key factor in politics everywhere. The Chinese community is no exception.
The Chinese-Canadians always have the impression that NDP is economically incompetent, or their economic message is not for all people (probably not just the Chinese feel that way). The NDP needs to convince the Chinese community that their economy is more than just about compensating the poor. They need to do a better job explaining how they can expand, grow, and develop the economy.
Take the “Leap Manifesto” for example (“Leap” is word hard to sell in Chinese community because it reminds people the disaster of “Great Leap Forward”). Yes, people agree that green economy is the future, but how does the country shift the economy toward that? The Chinese expect more detailed, concrete, and credible answers than “we tax so-and-so then invest money in blahblahblah”. If NDP cannot provide a solid economic plan within a 4 years cycle, it’s hard for people to vote for the party even with the arguments about how important other issues such as the environment crisis are in the long term.
Moreover, the NDP doesn’t have enough candidates with impressive business backgrounds. It’s not reasonable enough to argue that Donald Trump can run the economy well because he is seen as a business tycoon especially from the Celebrity Apprentice. However, this is how many people perceive images. Voters are not economic professors or political analysts. They believe in things that are easy but not necessarily true to believe because they feel that way. In the eyes of many Chinese Canadians, candidates with impressive business backgrounds are more credible in managing the economy than those who have never operated a business. The NDP needs to diversify the background of their candidates in order to appear more credible on the “economy”.
After all, it’s the economy stupid! Bill Clinton is 100% correct on this.
No.5: Both provincial and federal NDP needs to do a better job at geopolitical strategy.
Given the geography of the country and similar geography within each of its provinces, different regions often have different interests of meeting their needs. As a result, we have a fragmented society.
Let’s examine a few examples.
Federally, in 1993, the Reform Party of Canada successfully used the western alienation wedge to win seats away from the Progressive Conservative and New Democratic Parties in the House of Commons. The Reform Party used a lot of populist rhetoric, and many voters confuse such rhetoric with being progressive.
In most of the provinces, you can also see different geopolitical interests playing out on the ballot box. Urban communities often care about better transit, more affordable housing, and employment security, while rural communities want more roads and highways being built, and often see wealth security correlate with fossil fuel energy development.
Whether it’s the federal Liberal Party, or the BC Liberals, Ontario Liberals, or Saskatchewan Parties, they all know how to sell different benefits to different communities. As a result, they will often have a wide voter base.
From the vantage points of persuading Chinese-Canadians to support the party electorally, the NDP often is too focused on selling values rather than the benefits. Many Chinese-Canadians, often the first-generation immigrants, don’t even pay much regard to the so-called “values”. They may even lack the educational background to understand what “democratic socialism” means, and other parties can use such confusion to use “communist authoritarianism” by the communist blocs in the Cold War to inflict a dog-whistle wedge.
Instead, the party is much better served away from imposing “purity tests” within itself, which is especially apparent in its primary nomination contests, and instead nominate candidates with the best chance to win while looking out for the interests of the targeted electorate. Values don’t have to be shelved in elections, but the purity tests often turn the candidates most likely to win away. The nomination of Chak Kwong Au (he might not be progressive at all) in Richmond-South Center is a practical example for the BC NDP.
This problem isn’t just unique to the BC NDP. From monitoring the recent elections, the Ontario and federal NDP also appear to have similar problems. What do you think?