Chinese Canadians are capable of making their own decisions

By Andi Shi

This op-ed was published in The Hill Times on May 13, 2024.

In response to recent assertions made by some politicians and media regarding the alleged influenced of the Chinese government on the voting behaviors of Chinese-Canadians, CPAC has released a commentary. The full text is as follows:

The interim report on foreign interference in federal elections settles some questions and leaves others hanging. One of the lingering questions is to what extent Chinese Canadians were influenced by the Chinese government. 

To some in the media that was a forgone conclusion. The host and the entire panel of senior journalists on one of the nation’s leading Sunday political shows aired during the inquiry readily accepted that Kenny Chiu and other Conservative candidates lost their seats in the last federal election because of Chinese interference, assuming thousands and thousands of Chinese Canadians voted the way they were told to by the Chinese government. The influential commentators never questioned whether that narrative held any water. 

As a Chinese Canadian who has some knowledge of the Chinese diaspora community, I can say without a doubt that it does not. Chinese Canadians have brains to think for themselves. They, too, are capable of making their own independent decisions.

I live a stone’s throw away from Markham-Unionville, a riding where over half of the residents are of Chinese descent. During the 2015 federal election, the Liberals swept the Greater Toronto Area, except Markham-Unionville, a lone blue diamond in a sea of red. All my Chinese-Canadian friends in that riding voted for the Conservative candidate Bob Saroya, who is an Indian immigrant, rather than the Liberal candidate, who is of Chinese descent. That tells you how strong the Chinese Canadian support was in that riding for the Conservative Party.

Surprisingly, Saroya won both the 2015 and 2019 elections, but lost his seat in 2021 to his Liberal rival when support for Justin Trudeau had slid significantly.

What happened?

To understand this seemingly implausible upset, one has to go back to the social and political atmosphere of 2021. When COVID-19 hit Canada in 2020, it triggered a wave of anti-Chinese racism which continued through the 2021 election. Many Chinese Canadians were attacked, harassed, blamed, and discriminated against in a variety of ways. People in the Chinese community felt very vulnerable and threatened. Then-Conservative leader O’Toole and some other party candidates did not speak out to support Chinese Canadians. On the contrary, much of their rhetoric fuelled anti-Chinese sentiments. That’s the real reason that many Chinese Canadians abandoned the Conservative Party. Saroya was simply a victim of his own leader and his colleagues’ anti-Chinese rhetoric.  

It’s not a secret that many Chinese Canadians within the Conservative Party fiercely criticized Mr. O’Toole and others for offending the Chinese community, causing the collapse of the Chinese votes.

In a 2023 commentary, Mark Johnson, a Conservative candidate in the 2021 election, observed that “In 2021, the Conservative Party offended large portions of the Chinese-Canadian community.” He regretted that “some Conservative MPs had been too strident in their language, came across as obsessively anti-China, and brushed the line of intolerance,” which sowed “mistrust towards an ethnic group.”

“Being informed and discerning citizens, they voted accordingly,” concluded Johnson. “We Conservatives can’t blame meddling by China for our losses.” 

Johnson also warned that “when we create fears of an ‘enemy within’, that Canada is rife with Chinese spies in our universities, businesses, and governments, then we run the risk that innocent Canadians of Chinese descent fall under suspicion and become the victims of prejudice. The Chinese-Canadian community is rightly troubled by the recent rise of anti-Asian incidents. Alarmism on this issue only worsens the problem.”

The notion that the Chinese government can influence enough Chinese Canadians to change the election results in many ridings is never a tenable thesis. The fact that great proportions of Chinese Canadians voted the same way as the Chinese government liked does not mean they were puppets. Ten-thousand independent minds could make the same logical decision. Casting that independent decision by many as a mindless action at a foreign government’s bidding is an insult to our intelligence.

Political leaders and journalists carry considerable influence on what kind of society we cultivate. It’s important that those with power and influence conduct themselves responsibly in accordance with the values of truth, fairness and objectivity.