Sinophobia in Canada: Attorney General David Eby and the Vancouver housing crisis with Chinese characteristics

SFU Student Rose Wu has written a poignant commentary about the anti-Chinese racism that has come to underscore panic over Vancouver’s housing crisis. Her piece in The Tyee, should be compulsory reading for the influential politicians, academics and journalists whose campaign against skyrocketing housing prices has cast a pall on “Asian-looking people” while downplaying the role of other major factors.

How did the Canadian housing story become linked to race? Specifically, what has led to the framing of this narrative as the “Vancouver housing crisis with Chinese characteristics”?

Wu doesn’t need to look far for an explanation. In separate commentaries preceding her July 4 piece, three media professionals and an academic laid out some of the themes of the “Blame the Chinese” storyline.

The view from the ground: Mitchell Anderson and Lynda Steele

Mitchell Anderson: Chinese capital flight, tax avoidance, and money laundering

In his July 3 commentary in The Tyee, freelance writer Mitchell Anderson summarizes the popular opinions that collectively blame China, Chinese immigrants, and their money for the high price of Vancouver real estate. His summary is noteworthy for not mentioning the domestic factors that have contributed to the region’s housing boom or crisis. This would include a decade of prolonged low interest rates, the surge in bank lending for home buying, the rise of alternative mortgage lenders, the region’s strong economy and job market, restrictive anti-supply policies and practices by the various levels of governments, the shortage of rental-only developments, the intergenerational transfer of wealth, population growth, and record tourism arrivals.

According to Anderson’s one-dimensional explanation, China’s wealthy, together with its criminal elements and corrupt officials have spirited a huge amount of money out of their country into Canada’s housing market. He cites a Bloomberg story about US$800 billion leaving China since 2014 without asking if a large part of that is foreign direct investment (FDI) projects undertaken by the country’s many large companies in various parts of the world. His suggestion that the bulk of that US$800 billion has gone into buying Metro Vancouver’s C$50 billion (US$38 billion)-a-year housing market is absurd: imagine a garter snake trying to swallow a horse.

Anderson also repeats a widely circulated story that wealthy Chinese migrants evaded paying taxes after arriving in planeloads through Canada’s Business Immigration Program, which ran from 1980 to 2014. The “satellite family” phenomenon is often portrayed as widespread among Chinese immigrants, where the man returns to China to work and pays no taxes to Canada while his wife and children live off welfare in their new homeland. The Canadian media’s obsession with Chinese satellite families pales in comparison with its surprising lack of interest in the far bigger tax evasion problems posed by the country’s corporations and powerful elite

Anderson, a frequent contributor to The Tyee, completes his negative stereotype of today’s Chinese immigrant with the inevitable reference to money laundering. These days, “money laundering” and “Chinese” have become mutually associated words. Credit goes largely to British Columbia’s Attorney General, David Eby, who has alleged – and yet to substantiate – that Asian immigrant gangs are laundering billions of dollars through Vancouver’s housing market, casinos, luxury goods business, and expensive cars trade. 

The impression that Chinese gangs have swamped Vancouver with “mind-blowing” amounts of money has been largely sold to the public through regular sensational news reporting in the Canadian media, often with helpful government leaks and secret police studies. The high point of this campaign is Eby’s recent series of studies on money-laundering undertaken by supposed experts that is looking more like political theatre built on dubious data and speculative assumptions. Just as troubling is that Eby and his chief investigator Peter German seem overly focused on targeting Chinese money, immigrants and criminals as the main villains. As I have noted in the Georgia Straight, the Eby-commissioned studies are preoccupied with real-estate; they fail to address established money-laundering activities in other major sectors of the economy, where the Chinese factor is far less pronounced. 

Lynda Steele: Chinese investors force DINK couple to settle for a condo in Vancouver

When you and your partner are a high-powered Dual-Income-No-Kids (DINK) couple who cannot afford one of those C$20 million waterfront mansions, who do you blame for your “housing crisis”? 

Global News Radio CKNW host Lynda Steele offers her personal perspective into how the Vancouver housing discussion has become so intertwined with anti-Chinese racism.

“I should be living in a mansion in Shaughnessy, right? Champagne dreams and caviar wishes?” Steele asks half-mockingly. Instead of the high life befitting her celebrity status, she and her partner have to settle for a condo. She blames wealthy Chinese migrants and money-launderers working with greedy developers and incompetent politicians for having priced them out of the mansion.

The most telling but unstated point in her comment is that the “Vancouver housing crisis” story means different things to different people. The homeless and the poor who do not have safe or stable housing at all now have to share that narrative with those who feel they should be owning multi-million-dollar single-family houses in the city.

To support her argument, Steele cites Simon Fraser University (SFU) urban planner Andy Yan’s 2015 study of 172 expensive homes in an affluent section of Vancouver’s west side. Yan was given a set of selected data by Eby, the NDP’s housing critic when the Party was in opposition. Suspiciously, 66% of those homes were bought by people with “non-Anglicized Chinese names.”  

The study’s apparently predetermined conclusion had the effect of igniting national outrage with the “evidence” to support the theory that new Chinese immigrants and their capital had taken over Vancouver’s housing market. Reporters have since repeatedly cited that 66% figure with no reference to the tiny sample size of 172 houses.

Yan-Eby study legitimizes Sinophobia with specious data

When Vancouver’s then-mayor, Gregor Robertson, criticized the study’s focus on race, he was rebuffed by influential journalists Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun and Ian Young of the South China Morning Post (SCMP). Todd cited experts who said it is not racist to discuss the impact of global capital, regardless of their origin, on local housing costs. But he and the experts neglected to mention that the study’s flawed methodology, data selection, and small sample size had predetermined the conclusion of home ownership by race. 

If they had wanted to prove the impact of global capital on Vancouver’s housing prices, the Eby-Yan study was not the smoking gun.

In a bizarre twist, it was Young who underscored the study’s racial tone while trying to defend it from racism charges. In an interview with Maclean’s magazine, he said the study accomplished two things:

“It proves that those buyers are ethnically Chinese. I don’t think that’s disputable. If someone’s got a purely Chinese name, they’re ethnically Chinese. Secondly, I think to an almost irrefutable degree, it proves they have some form of Chinese as a language mother tongue.”

Yan won over popular opinion, and his study remains as influential as ever. In a mushy piece for Maclean’s magazine that included the usual allegations of Chinese complicity and stereotypes, author Terry Glavin hailed Yan as “the analyst who exposed Vancouver’s real estate disaster.” And urban planning expert Sandy James recently praised the Eby-Yan study for proving that the arrival of “a significant group of people” had led to the “commodification of housing as a holding, not a place to live in.” 

Judging from Glavin’s coverage and James’ comment, it still has not occurred to Canada’s talking heads that a survey sample of 172 houses taken from more than 42,000 Greater Vancouver homes sold in 2015 is statistically meaningless. Beyond the insignificant data set, even the location was set in order to arrive at Eby’s predetermined conclusion. Eby had focused the data-collection effort on a small section of Vancouver’s west side for its high representation of ethnic Chinese residents. This methodology can also be applied to, say, parts of Surrey and Oak Street to show that people with “non-Anglicized Indian” and “non-Anglicized Jewish” names dominate certain neighbourhoods. What does it prove? Nothing, except that the methodology was likely racially motivated, and that Vancouver neighbourhoods are racially segregated. The Yan-Eby report’s “finding” of a high rate of Chinese home ownership was rigged from the start.

With the mainstream media and academia failing to ask critical questions, it was left to a former politician living in eastern Canada to warn about the “Yellow Peril” racist nature of the inquiry.

“Eby’s guy (Andy Yan) looked at the names of the 172 buyers, screening them for ‘non-anglicized’ Chinese names, which is…racist,” said Garth Turner in his November 2, 2015 blog piece. “Of course just looking at names does not reveal if the buyers are Canadian citizens, landed immigrants, permanent residents or the children and spouses of people working abroad but investing here.”

If Wu wants to know why, how or when the housing discussion turned racial, the Eby-Yan study of 172 houses is a key moment. 

The China-blamers have won

Instead of inviting skepticism and derision from the public, the media’s lack of objectivity and impartiality has become the new norm in the housing debate, endowing the anti-Chinese narrative of Vancouver’s housing crisis with a kind of “common sense” feel that makes anti-racist interventions more difficult, and all the more necessary 

This strikes at the core of Wu’s lament that while “my family and I haven’t contributed to the skyrocketing prices…we’ve been lumped together with all Asian-looking people.” 

The harsh reality is the Canadian public is already convinced that foreign capital, especially Chinese, is the source of Metro Vancouver’s housing crisis. The public is not interested to continue with the discussion. The Chinese blamers have won.

Over the past year, this guilt-by-association trend for “Asian-looking people” has extended to their alleged involvement in widespread tax evasion by satellite families, casino money-laundering, and the opioids crisis.

As if these challenges weren’t enough, Chinese Canadians must contend with three emerging major trends that will subject the community to further suspicion and alienation. 

Firstly, in line with the United States and Europe, anti-immigration xenophobia and populism are on the rise in Canada. Non-white immigrants will have to contend with increasing “go back to your country” sentiments, especially now that the US President has made it all but officially acceptable. Chinese people will be under pressure to prove their Canadianness.  

Secondly, Chinese Canadians, despite their mostly negative sentiments towards Beijing, have the burden of proving they are not China’s proxy.

Thirdly, the public’s conflation of Chinese with China is becoming a public relations nightmare for the community. These days, China’s global image has been tarnished by accounts of human-rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet, the riots in Hong Kong and Beijing’s worsening ties with neighboring countries and the West. Canada’s bilateral relations with China are still reeling from Huawei-related security issues and diplomatic disputes.

Wu may not have intended it, but her article speaks to the growing uncertainties for Chinese Canadians amid the challenges brought on by an increasingly strong China, and the emergence of a new and troubling strain of Sinophobia in Canada.

The irony is that British Columbia’s highest-ranking official overseeing the administration of justice and protecting human rights in the province helped legitimise the racialization of Vancouver’s housing problems.

A longer, 2-part, version of this article was published on Ng Weng Hoong’s blog, One Pacific News, and on Asia Times. Part 1 of this version is available here, and part 2 here.

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