Anti-Chinese racism at the root of Vancouver’s progressive City Hall: White race power, the new yellow peril, and the electoral left

The following is based on Listen Chen’s talk at Alliance Against Displacement’s panel on BC’s municipal elections, “About that White Progressive Sweep”, and is part of The Volcano’s primer on Metro Vancouver’s 2018 civic elections.

On the day of the municipal election, I opened up Twitter and saw this tweet:

It was tweeted by a frequent housing-commentator account – that ever growing portion of the Twitter universe devoted exclusively to panicked tweets about China, Chinese people, “Chinese money”, the real estate market, fentanyl, money laundering, casinos, and praise for British Columbia’s Attorney General David Eby.

Well, it appears that the call to “take Vancouver back from the Chinese” was met through the ballot boxes: for the first time since 1986 (which was the last wave of anti-Chinese racism), there are no Chinese people on Vancouver’s City Council. Out of the 4 progressive parties in Vancouver, only one Asian candidate was run, and not a single candidate spoke out about escalating anti-Chinese racism.

What is the relationship between the progressive left, electoral politics, and white supremacy? Why are progressives participating in a “foreign investment” narrative that defends white settler power? Is there something particular to an electoral strategy that is in direct conflict with anti-racist struggle?

I’m going to make three arguments that I hope will help us think through these questions:

First: White supremacy and anti-Chinese racism are produced through capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism. Understanding white supremacy means understanding how “race” is defined through particular economic and political processes. Race shape-shifts in accordance with changing economic conditions, which means that racism is not  static or coincidental—it’s a deliberate and necessary component of capitalism, colonialism, and imperialism.

Second: Electoral politics cannot confront white supremacy, because politicians and parties are limited by a pragmatism that can only understand racism as a problem of representation.

And third: Anti-racist struggle needs to be anti-capitalist, anti-colonial, and anti-imperialist.

Taking Vancouver Back across the centuries: the production of anti-Chinese racism in BC

My first argument is that the production of race in Canada is not just ideological. In other words, it doesn’t just exist through ideas or language, it is created through settler-colonial, capitalist, and imperial processes. I’m going to focus primarily on capitalism and settler-colonialism in this section, and I’ll take up imperialism a little later on. My intention in starting with a material definition of race is that I think there’s a false sense that we live in a “post-racial” society, when the reality is that white supremacy has always been, and continues to be, foundational to Canada.

For the vast majority of the 19th and 20th centuries, Chinese people have been constructed as a transient  and convenient source of cheap labour—living here, working here, but forever temporary, alien and outside the Canadian nation state. This construction centers the perspective and interests of white settlers—both working class and capitalist.

During this time, the white working class in British-dominated Vancouver District Labour Council unions saw Chinese workers as a threat to their bargaining power because Chinese labour is cheaper than white labour. The well known 1907 riots by white workers in Chinatown and Japantown in Vancouver are just one example of a long history, in BC, of trade unions and white workers carrying the torch of anti-Asian racism.

These riots are important because they demonstrate the way in which the white working class relies on their own race power in times of economic crisis in order to protect their interests. White workers wield white supremacy as a weapon not just because of their racist attitudes, feelings, or thoughts, but because it awards them a material benefit. A temporary, minor benefit, but relative to Chinese workers, a benefit all the same. It’s no surprise, then, that the Asiatic Exclusion League was started by none other than the Vancouver Trades and Labour Council (along with similar labour groups in Bellingham and Seattle) before  the 1907 riots.

The riots were preceded by a hysteria about a rise in Asian immigration, exacerbated by the press publishing false reports of new Chinese immigrants and by the completion of principle railway work that meant that Chinese workers who were previously in geographically isolated areas were moving into cities to look for more work. Later, when the global recession hit prior to the onset of WWI, the rise in unemployment increased calls to adopt “white-only” labour policies from many trade unions and “labour-friendly” municipal politicians across the province.

These “white-only” calls demonstrate how there is no way to separate “economic anxieties” from “racial anxieties”, because race is produced economically, and the ideology of race has material weight. Whites believed the eugenicist pseudoscience that Chinese men needed fewer calories per day than white men in order to physically survive, and they believed the imperialist narrative that Chinese men did not need the privacy, space, or access to hygiene that white men needed. Karl Marx argues that in the capitalist mode of production, the average price of a certain group’s wages is determined in part by dominant social ideas about the quality of housing, quantity of food, and recreational needs that constitute that group’s “prime necessities of life.” These race beliefs were so widespread that they were made real economically: the market valued Chinese workers’ wages as less than their white counterparts.

The calls for “white-only” labour were also justified with arguments that Chinese people were only a temporary presence in Canada, that they were not and should not be part of the settler colonial project, which should be only for whites. So not only are racial and economic anxieties bound up in ideas of national and cultural belonging, but emphasizing cultural difference can be a way to produce material consequences of race. For example, in an effort to have Chinese workers in certain industries fired and banned, a Socialist Party MLA put forth the Employment in Dangerous Industries Bill in the late 1910s, which sought to require workers in coal and metal mines, sawmills, shingle mills, and other industries to have a reading knowledge of a European language. This foreshadows how later in the 20th century, “multiculturalism” emerged as a new form of white supremacy that sought to replace overtly racist policies with purportedly “race-blind” ones that emphasize assimilation.

These anxieties over competing for jobs were also deeply bound to white settler territoriality over Indigenous land. At the founding convention of the United Farmers of British Columbia union in 1917, a delegate declared, “Every cent paid to an Oriental [goes] to China or to buy a mortgage on a white man’s farm.” Another concluded that despite this, it was “useless to talk of getting rid of the Chinaman, [because] we need him in our businesses and require his labour on our ranches and to develop the country.” So, one the one hand, there was this deeply xenophobic territoriality founded first and foremost on colonialism, but on the other hand, the reality of periodic labour shortages and the bottom line of making a profit made the availability of cheap Asian labour difficult to resist. Ultimately, despite the need for cheap labor, the common sentiment was that allowing Asians to work on and/or own farms was too high a price to pay: a Kamloops paper summed it up: “It would be better to allow acreage to remain untilled rather than use Chinese labor.”

The idea that it is better for land to be untilled than worked on by Chinese labor stems from the logic of terra nullius. It’s better for land to remain “empty” than to allow Chinese and Japanese people to till the land because tilling connotes a right of ownership. White farmers were not making a literal, legal claim that Asians who tilled land automatically would gain ownership of it. Rather, they were expressing a deep ideological and spiritual investment in one of the core tenets of settler-colonialism—terra nullius serves to eradicate Indigenous relationships to land by only recognizing relationships to land in terms of ownership, and only recognizing an entitlement to ownership through specific types of labor like farming that produce capitalist value—that produce a commodity that can then be bought and sold. Through settler-colonialism, the production of capitalist value displaces Indigenous models of value.

Without an analysis of the settler-colonial and capitalist productions of race, it’s impossible to make sense of why white workers and unions have so many times been at the forefronts of anti-Asian racism in BC. In the case of farmers, the BC Federation of Labour went so far as to critique farm and fruit grower unions that wanted to employ cheap Asian labour but ban Asians from owning land—in their view, it was not enough to oppose Asians owning land, one had to oppose Asian labour altogether. A [British] Unionist Party MP for Nanaimo, J.C. McIntosh, captures how white settler workers understood the relationship between work and land: “the man who tills the land will eventually own the land, and the man who owns the land will ultimately govern the state.”

The “good” Chinese immigrant: white supremacy and the foreign investment narrative

A white supremacist flyer distributed in Richmond in 2016. Image credit: Global News

Now, at this point in my talk, I can imagine a few sceptics saying, okay, we all admit that anti-Chinese racism definitely existed—but what does all of that have to do with today? Well, the production of white supremacy, in Canada, in 2018, still relies on settler-colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, and trade unions continue to forge the way for anti-Chinese racism with their happy endorsement of sinophobic policies and politicians.

That being said there have also been some fairly recent shifts in how the State handles racial difference—namely, in the adoption, starting in the late-1960s, of multiculturalism as a policy that includes the representation of select racialized minorities within the national fabric of Canada.

Canada amended its Immigration Act in 1967, which allowed for immigrants with some degree of middle class cultural capital to come to Canada. Shortly after, various levels of government began actively pursuing greater trade relationships with other Pacific Rim countries. Michael Harcourt, who later became leader of the NDP, helped create a municipal economic strategy when he became mayor of Vancouver in 1980 that emphasized Vancouver’s position as a gateway to the Pacific Rim. The strategy promoted the export of services and resource commodities to other Pacific Rim economies. Under Harcourt, the City also lobbied higher levels of government to create legislation supporting international banking centres in Vancouver. Which is just to emphasize that these shifting economic imperatives—to build up investment and trade within the Pacific Rim, motivated shifts in immigration policy as well as ideological or symbolic shifts in who can belong to Canada.

Also in the 1980s was the announcement of the terms of Hong Kong’s handover back to China, which triggered a kind of mass exodus of immigrants from Hong Kong. Just like in 1907, panic over an influx of immigrants triggered a racist backlash that mobilized all the same narratives we are seeing today: Chinese people are snatching up real estate, driving up prices, refusing to assimilate, and spurring the “dramatic economic, demographic, & physical transformation” of Vancouver.

Harry Rankin, a long-time City Councillor and socialist who helped co-found COPE, and who is an icon for COPE’s resurgence today – railed against Chinese migrants in the 1980s. In 1989 he fumed in the press that “offshore people” should not be able to “own, deal, or sell land in B.C. like it’s some sort of Hong Kong stock market…the basic issue is to give Canadians the first and only chance to buy.”

Anxiety about Hong Kongers, in the late 80s, was similar to anti-Mainland racism today, but also different because of the differing roles that Hong Kong and China have in the global economy

What I find interesting about this last wave of sinophobia, is that there was a marked chorus of Chinese-Canadians joining in the xenophobia. So you had Lieutenant Governor David Lam, himself an immigrant from Hong Kong, empathizing with white settler anger: he said in an interview that there were too many visible minorities showing up too suddenly, and compared it to inviting some friends over for dinner and having your house flooded with “intruders.” And you had Chinese-Canadians declaring in the newspaper that they were also annoyed by, for example, hearing Cantonese in public school classrooms.

When critics of the housing crisis today call out, take Vancouver back! They are suggesting that “too much” has been conceded to the Chinese. When Chinese-Canadians join in these cries, they are demonstrating how the category of the “good” Chinese immigrant relies on a “bad” Chinese immigrant to give it meaning. In 2016 a letter to the editor published in the Richmond News responded to deeply racist flyers distributed in Richmond by “Immigration Watch Canada” with empathy and conciliation. The author writes, “I immigrated to Canada because I share Canadian values and want to pursue an engaged life in this country. However, I have also come to know…members of the Chinese community who exhibit very limited interest or willingness to participate in the local community.”

Firstly, this good immigrant-bad immigrant binary demonstrates the fragility of market-driven inclusivity—no matter what limited representation some Chinese Canadians get in the multicultural settler-colonial nation state, that state is still white supremacist: which means it naturalizes and centers white people as those who are entitled to be here—select racialized settlers must jump through hoops to prove they’re deserving, and Indigeneity is reduced to cultural difference. When some white farmers argued, in the 1910s, that the State should end the head tax so that they could hire more cheap Chinese labour, they were not opposing anti-Chinese racism: they were exploiting racist ideas of whose work is valued in order to make a profit. Similarly, multiculturalism is not about ending white supremacy, it’s about strategically adjusting Canada’s immigration policies to serve its economic interests.

As I was looking through newspaper articles from the late 80s that covered that wave of anti-Chinese xenophobia in Vancouver, what surprised me was that many mainstream newspapers were openly calling Vancouver out for being racist. The Chicago Tribune, the Wall Street Journal, the Vancouver Sun, the South China Morning Post all ran headlines and editorials lamenting BC’s continuation of blatant anti-Chinese racism.

I think these newspaper articles flag how racialization is mediated by imperial competition. Anxiety about Hong Kongers, in the late 80s, was similar to anti-Mainland racism today, but also different because of the differing roles that Hong Kong and China have in the global economy. Hong Kong is a former British colony that, with the exception of lacking universal suffrage and being constitutionally bound to China, is economically and culturally very much in line with liberal, capitalist democracies like Canada or the United States. There’s been no significant anti-colonial movements in Hong Kong since the 1960s and if anything, the people who left in the years leading up to the Handover were themselves anxious about China, not Britain. Mainland China, on the other hand, serves as the ultimate bogeyman to western imperial interests. And so part of today’s sinophobia is expressed in questions of national security and national and international economic interests that are prompted by China’s real or imagined threat to the liberal world order.

Anti-racism as anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, anti-imperial

When we understand white supremacy as a colonial and capitalist and imperial production, as opposed to purely existing in the attitudes and ideas of individual people, then the inherent limitations of City Hall become quite clear.

Politicians are bound by the pragmatism of getting elected and staying in office. When the foreign investment narrative goes from a fringe theory to a hegemonic explanation championed and legislated by Attorney General David Eby, anyone whose goal is to get elected and stay elected would be nuts to speak out against it—which is why candidates across the progressive spectrum made sure to parrot Eby’s conspiracy theory about a shadowy group of Chinese investors fueling both the housing crisis and the opioid crisis. Not only does electoral pragmatism mean accepting common sense—even if it’s deeply racist and colonial—it means drafting platforms that rhetorically homogenize the interests of different social groups in order to appeal to the broadest number of people possible. This “rhetorical homogenization” masks the many contradictions that become especially apparent in times of crisis. For example, what homeless people need and what middle class professionals want are contradictory. Professionals and investors want low tax rates and a stable business climate and homeless people need tax-funded social housing and liveable incomes, whether through wages or welfare rates. Each of these requires opposing legislation, but the NDP would have you believe that there are no conflicts between the material interests of different social groups—that way they can appear to serve everyone’s best interest while privileging a core group and throwing everyone else under the bus.

The NDP’s most effective act, since coming into power, has been to legislate and naturalize sinophobia, which is what the municipal elections confirmed: progressive candidates who pragmatically helped entrench sinophobia were rewarded with their seats on City Council. And now progressives are confronting the stunning revelation that their buying into white supremacy—surprise!—produced an all-white Council. But the problem is not just who sits on City Council, the problem is none of the progressive parties have anti-racist programs—presumably because even the ones that fashion themselves as critical of capitalism have no apparent analysis of how capital structures and produces race.

I want to conclude by suggesting that we articule an anti-racist politics that is decidedly anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperial: an anti-racism that commits to destroying the very structures that produce race, not reforming them so that they can be slightly more liveable for some groups. I can’t outline some static plan to definitively end all those structures, because it’s not that simple, but I will suggest that we critically intervene in BC’s housing crisis, which has spawned much of the popular frustration driving this current surge in progressive electoralism, with an anti-capitalist politics that is also anti-imperial.

An anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist perspective recognizes that the housing crisis is global and that the engines of displacement target poor and migrant working class people, as well as Indigenous people. In late 2017, the Beijing government razed Daxing, an entire settlement of migrant workers, arguing that their homes were a fire safety. Homeless people across Canada and the United States also face violent displacement under the guise of public health and safety. Image credit: Bryan Denton, New York Times.

We need to intervene with an anti-capitalist and anti-imperial politics because anti-capitalist rhetoric or sentiment has served and continues to serve as a leftist cover for white supremacy, settler colonialism, and Canadian imperialism. This leftist cover actually extinguishes anti-capitalist frustrations by directing hostility away from our economic system and toward Chinese people. My sense is that there are people who are being swept up in the momentum of progressive electoralism who don’t feel anti-Chinese, even as they support candidates who remain silent about, or champion, David Eby’s sinophobic crusade. Maybe they feel morally conflicted, but at the same time believe that stoking anger toward foreign investors and globalization will bring us closer to some kind of mass anti-capitalist movement. I don’t know about you, but I’m uninterested in the cynical suggestion that we need to dangle anti-Chinese racism on a stick in order to amass the momentum we need to merely reform the system.

The history of sinophobia in BC demonstrates how white supremacy oppresses and subjugates racialized and Indigenous peoples, and traps white workers in a cycle of relying on race power to cope with the periodic crises of capitalism. Having the NDP in office and reviving COPE doesn’t suddenly resolve the left’s white supremacist baggage—as we are seeing, so far, these electoral parties have all traded in an anti-racist analysis of what’s happening right now in BC in exchange for their seats in office. At best, all they can offer those of us who are committed to anti-racist politics is more diverse representation. But the left can do better. If our goal is to destroy, rather than preserve, the systems that exploit and oppress us, then we need to contend with how investing in whiteness, in settler-colonialism, and in Canadian imperialism are the biggest barriers to a revolutionary anti-capitalist politics.

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