2021 election lays bare deep divide in B.C.’s Chinese-Canadian community

Debate shows schism in opinion over relations with Beijing

Civic Education Society's Cantonese debate leading into the federal election, hosted by Ken Tun (bottom left) | Submitted

The Chinese-Canadian community’s voting intentions are more divided than ever in this year’s federal election, and the division stems largely from a single topic: Canada’s future relationship with China.

That is the observation of several community leaders after an August 28 Cantonese debate hosted by Civic Education Society Canada.

“China is really the focus for many people from Asia because of all the military activity surrounding Taiwan and the South China Sea,” said Ken Tung of the Civic Education Society, who hosted the debate, “and newcomers who left Hong Kong recently because of what’s happening are adding their voices to the debate.”

For former Vancouver councillor Tung Chan, the intensity of the friction between opposite sides of the China debate is something that he has never seen before. Chan noted that the division is drawn clearly along the lines of where members of the Chinese-Canadian community come from; those from Hong Kong and Taiwan are staunchly in support of a tougher stance against Beijing, while groups from the Chinese mainland community want to repair ties and move closer in collaboration.

“It’s the most confusing election that I’ve seen in terms of how people are going to vote and what they will look at,” Chan said. “It’s a reflection of the community becoming more complex. I’m seeing people from Hong Kong having a completely different set of priorities … from the mainland Chinese immigrant groups.”

Chan, a veteran of the Canadian political scene and a former CEO of immigrant services non-profit group SUCCESS, said there was not that divide in the Chinese-Canadian voting block when the Tiananmen Square protests happened in 1989. At that time, the local community was unanimous in condemning Beijing’s deadly suppression of the protesters.

At that time, however, the majority of the Chinese-speaking immigrants coming to Canada were either Hong Kong residents fearing the outcome of the city’s 1997 return to Chinese control or migrants from Taiwan concerned about an eventual military conflict with China.

Since 1997, however, the inbound Chinese migration wave to Canada has shifted dramatically to people from the Chinese mainland – areas directly controlled by the People’s Republic of China – and the newcomers often brought their perspectives with them.

Chan said he knows of at least three groups based in the mainland Chinese communities across Canada pushing people out to vote this year, as well as much more activity on social media.

Victor Ho, former editor-in-chief at the Chinese-language Sing Tao Daily Vancouver and now CEO of the independent Media Analytica Inc., confirmed that the emotions are equally high on the other side of the divide. Ho said Beijing’s crackdown on the democratic movement in Hong Kong is a driving force for many with ties to Hong Kong to push for Canada to take a tougher stance against China.

“People want to find out about the platforms of the candidates and the parties for clarity on Hong Kong,” Ho said. “Traditionally, economic, health and education will take a more important part of the discussion, but this year, people want to know your position on China, the Chinese Communist Party and Hong Kong. If you don’t have a clear policy, I can’t vote for you.”

People in the Hong Kong community, Ho added, have been frustrated by a number of positions Ottawa has taken in recent years with China, including the decision to work with a Chinese firm to research a COVID-19 vaccine early in 2020 – a bid that ended in failure after Beijing blocked a shipment of trial doses in May 2020, effectively ending the partnership.

Ken Tung agreed, adding that China’s arbitrary arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in what most observers call retaliation for the 2018 arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies CFO Meng Wanzhou, remain another sore point for the Hong Kong community – one now amplified by the crackdown in Hong Kong.

Tung added that the local Chinese community’s opposition to China and Beijing would be louder if not for the fear of retribution against family members who remain under Chinese jurisdiction in Hong Kong.

But even silenced people can vote, Tung noted.

“The Two Michaels case demonstrates that Canada is not being strong enough. People want a stronger and more prompt response to the threat from China. It’s the same with trade with China. People feel we are not responding to help people in trade, so what’s next in Canada’s policy with China is important.

Tung Chan, meanwhile, said new Canadians participating in the process isn’t a bad thing if they can be pointed in the right direction on how to go about their business.

“Concern is not the word I’d use,” Chan said. “I think of it as energy that society should harness. Basically, what is being demonstrated is that people are trying to understand how politics work in this country and how the election works. It’s getting people engaged.… People are saying now they want to be a part of it. We just have to find ways to make sure that we are not getting that energy wasted.”

Ho, however, is less optimistic.

“Many in the mainland Chinese community settle here just for permanent residency status,” he said. “They are often not citizens. So they are not able to vote. And even if they can, the voting rate from the Chinese community … has historically been very low. With the Hong Kong portion of the community now energized to vote, I don’t think there’s the same energy on the other side to compensate for the voting volume from the Hong Kong-Taiwan side.”•