Canada, Ethnic Studies and the World

By Yi Fang


On May 9, 2017, British Columbia will have another provincial election. Can the BC Liberals keep governing after 16 years, or would the BC NDP successfully take power? This will be the central question of this election campaign. This election we have 20 Chinese-Canadian Canadians running for public office.


For those who pays attention to the public opinion, when we get close to election time, many of the Chinese-Canadian candidates, and their supporters, predictably yell slogans such as “support Chinese-Canadian candidates to run for public office” and “[insert candidate name here] would fight for the Chinese community”. What does “Chinese-Canadian political participation” mean? What does “fighting for the Chinese community” mean? These questions appear to be neglected by Chinese-Canadian candidates and public office holders, community leaders, and even political pundits. They don’t appear to have reflected or discussed these questions seriously. I hope that as we head into the election we can start discussing these two questions in detail. That way, we would be able to do more to move our communities forward.

Question #1: Who counts as a part of the Chinese community?


The Chinese-Canadian community has this characteristic: many assume the Chinese groups that they belong to can solely represent the entire Chinese-Canadian community. In fact, many places in North America resembles this. Whenever the “fighting for the Chinese community” slogan is brought up, they are really just talking about what they think, or what those around them think about certain issues. In reality, this is another form of identity politics, since this group is divided into Canadian-born Chinese, first-generation Chinese immigrants, first-generation Chinese immigrants who migrated during early childhood, immigrants who have settled here for decades. Even within the first generation immigrants, they could be from Mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and elsewhere from Southeast Asia. Who counts as Chinese-Canadian?


For example, in recent years, Metro Vancouver’s housing affordability has been a lightning rod for debate. In 2015, a young Chinese-Canadian named Eveline Xia started the #donthaveamillion movement and organized protest about housing unaffordability. She attracted some criticism from the Chinese immigrant community, accusing her for “not fighting for the interests of Chinese-Canadians”. Given both Xia and these accusers are both Chinese-Canadian, why does Xia’s interest not count as “Chinese-Canadian interest” according to these recent immigrants? According to many recent immigrant groups, Xia has been living in Canada since she was a child, hence her thought patterns are too “westernized” or “localized”, therefore not qualified to represent Chinese-Canadians. Does this logic make sense? Digging deeper is worthwhile.


If the semantics on Chinese-Canadian community gets too murky, every community development discussion could fall into a stalemate argument of semantics. I believe that if you think you are Chinese-Canadian, then you should count as a part of the Chinese-Canadian community. After all, as a visible minority, what’s the point of playing too much “purity tests” and further fragmenting our community?


Question #2: Do Chinese-Canadians Have a Common Interest or Voice?


The diversity of the Chinese-Canadian community creates a need to consider what the interests are, especially when we have political candidates claim they will do this once they are in office. Like for every other community, everyone has a different financial background, hence leading to different views on economic policies. The environment in which they grew up in and their age group differences can often lead to different values. Many visible minorities of Chinese-Canadian get lumped into the group of people whose faces look alike but with similarities ending right there. The Chinese-Canadians’ point of view doesn’t exist! There’s only personal point of views.


Political candidates who bring up these slogans can only discuss on a surface level, because their ethnic cohorts often don’t even have real conversations about these issues at all. Therefore, I believe we should start having real discussions about these issues in the first place. What issues do progressives, conservatives, moderates, and independents have in common that they want to fight for and protect?


This discussion can be broken into three parts:

  1. Concrete policies such as investor immigrant program policies, education policies, etc.
  2. Direction of national and community development (for example, Sino-Canadian relations and whether British Columbia needs to accommodate Asia even more)
  3. What are your core values? (Regardless of political stripe, denouncing sinophobia should be supported by all mainstream parties with realistic chances of governing, since every Chinese-Canadian Canadian’s survival depend on it.)


Perhaps these three levels of discussion would not reach a consensus given the different economic and social background. However, having a dialogue about these topics within the community is the first step. When visible minorities don’t even know each other well enough, what’s the point yelling these slogans and talk about progressing the community? If there are common interests after these discussions, these interests must be fought for. If not, we need to respect each other because there may be a chance for a common interest in the future. This is an essential first step for the Chinese-Canadian community overall.


Question #3: What does “Chinese-Canadian Political Participation” Mean?


Running for office and voting are the two simplest ways of participation. I have always encouraged Chinese-Canadians running for office and voting. However, after discussing this topic with many of my friends in the mainstream community, I’ve noticed that no matter how long the immigrant have settled here, they don’t understand what each mainstream political parties and its candidates stand for even on a basic level. As a result, when they vote, they don’t even know what they voted for. As their lives get busier, they eventually drop out of political participation.


Other than continuing to encourage capable talent to run for office and encouraging citizens to vote, we should go back to the basics. Political participation can be expanded. Gaining a basic understanding is just the first step of political participation. How do we motivate Chinese-Canadians, especially the new immigrants to pay attention to local politics earlier? Communities should be more proactive in doing this. When these basic efforts aren’t even done, voter turnout and political participation cannot fundamentally improve. We need much better quality Chinese media here. We need more constructive community activities. We need more opportunities for them to interact and understand the mainstream community. We need to reflect on the details of how to do all this collectively, whether you’re a Chinese-Canadian Canadian politician, opinion leader, Chinese-community leader, or journalist. Even the most basic community involvement is the first step of political participation. If the only thing we think about is how to increase the Chinese-Canadian voter turnout during election seasons, we will always be stuck treating this as an electoral maneuvering exercise.


When the Chinese-Canadian communities run into social problems, they should communicate them to the mainstream media directly, not hide within their Chinese media silos. Whether it’s political commentators like Karen Lin on Huffington Post, or the Chinatown youth advocacy groups in Vancouver, they are very proactive in making the cultural problems heard in the mainstream media. We need more of these.


Lastly, the Chinese-Canadian community should perpetually fill in the pipeline of talent. They don’t have to just groomed for running for public office later on. They could be mentored with strong understanding about our society, economics, politics, culture, and rule of law. When young Chinese-Canadians are choosing to major in the humanities, I hope parents don’t bring too much opposition, since being a part of the community, we need talent in all areas.


Question #4: Is Chinese-Canadian Political Participation A False Proposition Or Does It Have Real Meaning Behind It?


Unless you’re a nihilist, every political activity has a meaning. Aristotle mentioned that humans are fundamentally political animals. Chinese-Canadian political participation can be broken down on two levels.


Firstly, political participation and understanding are fundamental skills for individuals to have in order to live in the western world. Immigration policy, taxation, youth mentorship, housing policies will affect everyone’s lives. Democracy is not necessarily completely sound nor perfect. However, Western democratic systems in general aren’t necessarily based on what’s logical. Unless you’re starting revolutions to invoke change, everything operates under the framework of the current political system. Regardless of whether it’s for everyday life or operating a business, if you don’t know how the democratic systems work, you will be at disadvantage. Democracies only work if you participate. Paying attention doesn’t guarantee your interests would be reflected, but not paying attention guarantees that your interests would not be represented. No matter how you resent this system’s inefficiencies, pace, or even lack of results, abstaining means the society would not move in a direction you want. In fact, when abstaining at critical times, the society often moves in a direction that you don’t want. When you abstain, you’re communicating that other people’s opinions have more say than you do. Even if the Chinese-Canadians don’t have a common interest, in the name of protecting personal interests, every issue being understood has personal relevance.


Secondly, we need to look at Chinese-Canadian political participation from a world history point of view. For those who live in North America and the rest of the Western world, there are only two things affecting our lives in the last decade: (1) the rise of China, (2) accelerating pace of globalization.


I previously wrote about this in an article on globalization.

“The 21st century’s other big topic is the rise of China. The rise of China yields several effects: changes of geopolitics, expansion of businesses, flow of international students and immigrants, and “Chinese factor” affect every corner of the world, regardless of whether it’s positive or negative, or how it’s being perceived. How the rest of the world deal with the rise of China poses a historic challenge to long-held norms and habits.”


As China’s standing continues to rise in the world, Chinese-Canadian citizens in the Western world attract more attention or even controversies. As the pace of globalization ramps up and more international students and immigrants move, Chinese-Canadian citizens living overseas would only increase in communities with pre-existing Chinese-Canadian populations like Vancouver, Toronto, Melbourne, San Francisco, etc. How to involve them in the local politics has deep meaning. These cities, given their existing and growing population of Chinese expats, would play a key experimental ground for conflicts created from the rise of China.


China is likely to become the world’s non-western superpower. However, during this process, Western society norms, psychology, and behavioral change have affected the everyday lives of the Chinese people. We cannot dismiss the possibility of intense conflicts between China and the rest of the Western world. When these conflicts happen, the Chinese expats living in the western world can play a key role. If these local Chinese immigrants have been regularly participating in local politics and built up their experience and foundations, maybe when international conflicts happen, they could successfully prevent further escalation of conflicts, serving as peacekeeping force within their local communities. If these Chinese immigrants do not have adequate experience of local political participation, when these conflicts happen, not only can they not help, they may act unwisely or immaturely, becoming unnecessarily sacrificial lambs in the process. More importantly, when the Chinese communities have participated in local politics consistently and showcases its rights to exist, maybe they can act as a bridge to dampen conflicts between the China and the western world, making disasters much less likely to happen.

Conclusion: Slow and Long Process To Complete Together

It’s been 60 years since Douglas Jung got elected as the first Chinese-Canadian member of parliament in 1957. Many of our predecessors sacrificed deeply to fight for this ethnic group to survive and thrive like what we have right now. This is the fruit of what our predecessors did. We have to continue this journey in order to build our country. There’s no reason not to, especially when the Chinese-Canadian community already earned a certain level of economic status and educational conditions.

Over the past few decades, the Chinese-Canadian political participation and unit movements persists no matter where you are in Canada. However, we cannot be stuck at the state of just yelling slogans or pushing up some Oriental-looking candidates into public office. If we want this ethnic group to make meaningful contributions, the political participation must be popularized and be made more comprehensive. We need to go back to reflecting on and discussing the basics.