Vancouver’s referendum on Sinophobia: Another “socialism of fools” in the shadow of a rising China

This article is part of The Volcano’s primer on Metro Vancouver’s 2018 civic elections.

A tweet from a progressive, trade-union backed politician in Richmond containing overt anti-Chinese racism

On Saturday October 20th, elections were held in every municipality in British Columbia. In Metro Vancouver the most significant election news is that for the first time since the 1986 Council (which occurred during a sinophobic panic about Hong Kong migrants moving to Vancouver and Richmond), no Asian councillors were elected. The election can be read as the region’s informal referendum on sinophobia.

By sinophobia, I am referring to an original currency of Vancouver’s electoral politics across the left-right political spectrum – anti-Chinese racism. Sinophobia, like all race ideas, appears against the backdrop of history, and, as an excretion of white supremacy, tells us information about white Canadian anxieties, fears, and desires.

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, sinophobia was the most virulent of a general anti-Asian racism. It was initiated by the reformist trade union movement, which was led by British workers who identified themselves with the British empire and felt themselves to be a worker’s flank in the imperial project of making Vancouver a British place. The sinophobia of 100 years ago was a language of settler colonialism that claimed British Columbia as not only a settler colonial place, but a British settler colonial place. White men advocated for laws to exclude Chinese men and attacked Chinese men with violence because they felt that Chinese men threatened the white claim to Indigenous land, and to the jobs that sprung from the stolen and commodified natural wealth of that land. Their main demand was for “Asiatic exclusion” immigration laws to specifically block Chinese (and South Asian and Japanese) workers from entering Canada. That was the sinophobia of the early 20th Century.

Today’s sinophobia appears differently but it is also born from a Canadian anxiety about owning a home and land, and income security. Rather than fear about Chinese workers claiming jobs and land that white workers feel are their entitled due, 21st Century sinophobia is conditioned by the increasing power and influence of China, and particularly the Chinese economy. Canadians fear losing access to property carved out of Indigenous lands to Chinese landlords and investors, and they fear losing the stability and security associated with being on the sunny side of global power. Like 100 years ago, it is the legal labour movement and its political body, the NDP, that is leading sinophobic populism that masquerades as anti-corporate, anti-landlord, or even anti-capitalist sentiment.

Most Metro Vancouver progressive parties and politicians in the 2018 election shied away from making overt statements against Chinese people, but some did not. Richmond City Council incumbent Harold Steves, a champion of the labour movement, made overt anti-Chinese racist comments on social media in the months before the election, a move that barely registered with the media and which did not stop him from being re-elected. COPE Vancouver Council candidates Anne Roberts and Derrick O’Keefe both sent out tweets that refer to the sinophobic conspiracy theory that unscrupulous Chinese investors are responsible for both the great ills that had befallen Vancouver: the housing crisis and the opioid overdose crisis.

Neither O’Keefe nor Roberts name China directly, but the association is undeniable. Most evidence of sinophobic populism in the 2018 election comes from reading even more oblique silences and absences. None of the progressive parties spoke out against Attorney General David Eby’s crusade against Chinese investors. A report commissioned and celebrated by Eby on a money laundering connection between real estate investment and fentanyl was the origin of the sinophobic conspiracy theory referred to by Anne Roberts and Derrick O’Keefe. No progressive Party spoke out against that either. Eby had done their heavy lifting: association with NDP progressivism was enough to be perceived as on the sinophobic bandwagon so long as a progressive Party did nothing to counter that perception.

As former Parks Board and City Council candidate Jamie Lee Hamilton noted on twitter, this race climate invested an Anglo-Saxon surname (a boon in any year) with premium value. A name that might sound Asian to Canadian ears might also poison the perception that the Party is willing to combat the new yellow period. It pains me to say this because [full disclosure] I hate Vision Vancouver deeply and passionately, but Vision was the only Party in the progressive bloc endorsed by the Vancouver District Labour Council to speak out, in the context of real estate discussions, against sinophobic racism.

In 2016 Mayor Gregor Robertson and prominent Councilor Kerry Jang spoke against making the housing crisis about race, and doubted the story that foreign investment should be blamed for the housing crisis. Earlier in his Mayoral career Robertson was celebrated for his efforts to reach out to Chinese communities: he spoke Mandarin well enough to give public speeches, led unprecedented trade delegations to China, dated a Chinese pop star, and was the face of the City of Vancouver’s apology for its history of anti-Chinese racism. The autopsy of Vision Vancouver’s historic fall has not yet been written, but when it does I think it is likely that it will explain that these political assets became liabilities. By 2018, Robertson’s perceived closeness to China made him a pawn of the “international real estate cartel” – another twitter conspiracy theory that, like the fentanyl money laundering myth, is taken from the anti-Semitic playbook.

The bloc of progressive parties that ran for City Council this year were cautious about how they might be perceived as relating to China. Out of the 10 candidates that they were collectively allowed to run – under the electoral pact negotiated by the Vancouver District Labour Council – only one candidate had an Asian name and he, Brandon Yan of OneCity, was not elected. The other progressive Parties – the Greens, COPE, and Vision – made the decision, and every decision in an election must be read as a strategic decision, to not run any Asian candidates for City Council. If there had been a progressive sweep and every single candidate in the progressive bloc sponsored by the Labour Council had been elected, then there would have been only one Asian candidate on council. The big business party, the NPA, was less concerned about being seen to be connected to money, Chinese or otherwise, but their Asian candidates also fared poorly and none were elected to Council. It will be interesting to see how they respond to this as they select candidates in the next election.  

The breed of sinophobia that has emerged in Vancouver’s municipal election brings with it an impalpable sense that the U.S. American empire – and Canada with it – is on its last legs. The appeal of today’s sinophobia is that, like anti-Semitism, it seems to justly critique the unjust schemes of the rich. This sinophobia has the conspiracy theory anti-capitalism and anti-“globalism” of anti-Semitism, the land entitlement of settler colonialism, and the defend-the-liberal-world-order yellow peril-ism of British and Canadian imperialism. Like anti-Semitism, sinophobia is the “socialism of fools.” Progressive politicians who cater to sinophobic conspiracy theories are shielding Canadian capitalists from the righteous anger of the poor, and throwing the Asian masses under the campaign bus. If the 2018 election can be read as an informal referendum on sinophobia, the results show that fighting racism and Canadian nationalism must be a high priority for non-electoral social movements in the years ahead.

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