Witnesses who appeared before the Commons special committee on Canada-China relations this week said they were troubled by comments Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made about racism — comments that left Conservatives fuming.
During a debate last Wednesday about the dismissal of two Chinese scientists from the National Microbiology Lab in Winnipeg, Trudeau appeared to suggest that Conservative MPs were feeding anti-Asian sentiments by asking questions.
“I hope that my Conservative Party colleagues are not raising fears about Asian Canadians,” Trudeau told the Commons.
Three women appeared before the committee as representatives of Tibetan, Uyghur and Hong Kong pro-democracy groups. Two of the three said they had personally experienced hostility and abuse during a year that has seen a well-documented wave of anti-Asian racist violence across North America.
All three also warned against soft-pedalling criticism of the Chinese government, or throttling back on efforts to block Chinese state espionage, out of a fear of appearing racist.
“Folks who claim to be standing up against anti-Asian hatred and racism, please, listen to your constituents and Asian voices,” said Tibetan activist Chemi Lhamo, whose run for student president at the University of Toronto provoked hostility and threats from Chinese nationalists.
“As an Asian woman, there is a bigger target on my back, and conflating the idea of anti-CCP [Communist Party of China] with anti-Asian is actually a much bigger disrespect.”
“I think our prime minister is really confused,” said witness Rukiye Turdush of the Uyghur Research Institute. “If we’re against the CCP, it doesn’t mean we’re against the Chinese people. It has nothing to do with anti-Asian racism. I really didn’t get why he said that.”
Biosecurity, not diversity
The government has refused to explain in detail why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband Keding Cheng were fired, and why Qiu in 2019 sent samples of Ebola and Henipah virus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology.
Last week, when pressed by opposition members about the case, Trudeau responded by praising diversity.
“We have long known that diversity is our strength as a country, especially in scientific research,” he told Parliament. “We will always strive to do more to protect the integrity of our research institutions and their data.
“However, we will never play into the hands of intolerance towards people from other countries, simply because they look different. We will always stand up for diversity.”
Conservatives responded by saying that the case is about national security and biosecurity, not diversity.
“When Prime Minister Trudeau conflates criticism of China’s government with anti-Asian racism, he plays into the propaganda efforts of China’s communist leadership,” said Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong and diversity critic Kenny Chiu in a statement. “Beijing’s goal is to conflate legitimate criticism of China’s government with intolerance towards anyone of Chinese heritage.”
They asked for a retraction, which has not been forthcoming.
“Good intentions don’t necessarily come with good results,” said Hong Kong dissident Cherie Wong of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, the last of the three women to testify before the committee.
“I saw that (Trudeau) made an effort to speak out about anti-Asian racism,” she told CBC News. “While I respect the prime minister for trying to ensure that our community won’t face increased harm from these discussions about geopolitical politics, I also hope that he can answer these questions, very real concerns of national security and foreign influence happening in our nation.”
Wong, who said she has experienced aggressive acts of racism over the past year, said “this fact that racism exists in Western society is being exploited by the CCP in different ways.
“Shortly after the Atlanta killings, we saw many Chinese community organizations that have state affiliations would actually hijack some of the grassroots organizing for anti-Asian racism rallies.
“These Chinese community organizations are are often inactive in the equity circle of anti-racist work, and only come out when they realize that there are rallies to be held and there are opportunities to speak to the press.
“And we did see from state media that the Chinese media is trying to portray a very violent society for racialized communities in the West, and they would use this kind of messaging in conjunction with, ‘Look at the motherland. Look at how in China we have racial harmony.'”
Wong said the CCP is itself guilty of having “violently oppressed and suppressed and murdered people who are not Han Chinese in Tibet, in Mongolia, in East Turkistan. So they are using this Asian racism to kind of draw up this patriotic, nationalistic view of China. But if you examine it clearly, you will see that what China is promoting is actually racial purity.”
Don’t dial it back
Some in the U.S. have suggested dialling back disagreements with China’s ruling party in an effort to reduce anti-Asian racism.
“Such suggestions reinforce the conflation of the Chinese state and people of Chinese descent — not to mention other people of Asian descent — the notion China’s leaders and racists and xenophobes outside of China promote that all people of Chinese descent owe our loyalty first and foremost to China, regardless of our citizenship or where we were born,” wrote Ho-Fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University.
Hung told CBC News that “the influence campaign by the Chinese government is a real problem that every democratic government needs to deal with.
“At the same time, many anti-Asian racists are taking advantage of the situation to fire up their hatred against Asians and Chinese and taking it into everyday life. And sometimes if (Asians) are in government, we target them unjustifiably, with investigations and so on.”
While unprovoked street attacks have been the main concern in North America, some Chinese-Australians have complained recent of living under a McCarthyite cloud of suspicion following a sudden worsening of relations with China.
Diversity among spies
“The focus on one group is not only bad because it is racism. It is also bad because it is counterproductive to national security,” said Hung.
“The Chinese government is not static. They are learning fast and they evolve rapidly,” said Hung, who argues that for some time Beijing has been “using the language of inclusion and diversity to protest U.S. institutions that violate China’s interest as defined by the Chinese government.”
One example is China’s pressure on U.S. universities to rescind invitations to the Dalai Lama on the grounds that it shows “cultural disrespect” toward Chinese students.
Canada had its own experience of that treatment in 2019 when then-Chinese ambassador Lu Shaye wrote an op-ed in the Hill Times charging that “white supremacy” lay behind Canada’s protests against the imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
Hung cites Donald Trump’s comments about “kung flu” and other disparaging rhetoric as examples of a politician deliberately stirring the pot of prejudice. But even a well-meaning politician “has to be very careful to separate the Chinese government and Chinese people in general, and the Chinese diaspora as well.”
It also should matter, said Cherie Wong, that China is a one-party state without meaningful elections.
“I think there’s a lot of people who misunderstand that the Chinese government is representative of the Chinese people. That is definitely a narrative that the Chinese government has been actively pursuing,” said Wong.
“But for us here, we need to be very clear that that’s not true. The CCP does not represent its people and we need to separate the conversation. Holding the Chinese government accountable is about holding the state and the leaders and the political actors of that country accountable.”