It’s not easy for local politicians to challenge the Chinese government. Comments can be interpreted as racist — or seized upon to justify racism.
It helps that Port Coquitlam Mayor Brad West is careful to say that he’s criticizing the Chinese government, or criminals who happen to be from China — not all people who identify as Chinese.
“These are useful distinctions to make,” said political scientist Stewart Prest, who teaches at Simon Fraser University. “As David Eby pointed out, the housing market has links to international activity and money laundering, so those are things that are actually happening. The question then is: How do we have a conversation in a sufficiently sensitive way, that we are not casting a broad net that lends itself to discrimination?”
Criticism of the Chinese regime and Chinese gangsters can be conflated with criticisms of immigration and Chinese residents, said Prest.
In a November interview with The Star, West said Chinese Canadians in his city have told him stories of getting phone calls and visits from Chinese state officials for actions like posting on social media or attending certain events.
“It’s so unsettling to know these people, who are our people, who live in our communities, are subject to surveillance and harassment by a foreign government on Canadian soil,” said West. “What’s equally shocking is how fearful they are. When we meet in my office, they want the blinds closed. They’re that fearful.”
This September, West was set to attend his first Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.
Advocates for democracy in Hong Kong and freedom for Uighurs in China protested outside the downtown Vancouver hotel as the Chinese consulate was about to host B.C.’s municipal leaders.
“Shame on you! Shame on you!” they chanted.
West spoke at the rally and said it was wrong that the important topics raised by the protesters wouldn’t be mentioned over the wine and cheese at the China-funded reception.
Before West left, a protester gave him two boxes of Tim Hortons doughnuts. Attached to each was a photo of the two Canadians being held in China.
The protester asked West if he would deliver the “care packages” to the Chinese consular officials to pass on to the captives “so that they know there are people in Canada who haven’t forgotten about them and who are thinking about them.”
“Of course I said yes,” said West.
So with the boxes of doughnuts in hand, West went into the hotel and entered the reception. He said he tried to approach a consulate staff member, but he took off.
“There was no one left to speak to,” he said, “so I just put the two boxes of doughnuts on the ground at the entryway.”
The controversy around the reception — and West’s criticism — led the UBCM to create an independent panel to report on how the convention is financed.
Two weeks ago, delegates voted to ban foreign countries from sponsoring events. China was the only country to have done so.
Rolling out the Red carpet
Controversies regarding China-Canada relations have been increasing.
The last month brought headlines that touched on everything from political to economic tensions.
China’s new ambassador to Canada warned that a formal backing of pro-democracy Hong Kong protesters, like the U.S. government did, would cause “very bad damage” to relations with Beijing.
Former MLA Richard Lee, who served as parliamentary secretary for the Asia-Pacific in the previous Liberal government, went public last week about his detention at a Shanghai airport in 2015. He was accused by Chinese authorities of “endangering national security” and was held for eight hours. He provided passwords to both his personal and government phones to the authorities. Lee was later ordered out of the country.
On Dec. 3, the Vancouver Island Health Authority stepped in to manage three senior care homes that were purchased by Beijing-based Anbang in 2017 in an Ottawa-approved sale. Anbang, which owns companies and properties around the world, was seized by the Chinese state in 2018 after its chairman was prosecuted for fraud and abuse of his position.
The health authority found that staffing shortages at the homes subjected residents to problems from neglect to physical abuse.
As China’s might continues to grow, will more local politicians follow Brad West’s lead?
NCM is publishing this excerpt from The Tyee on the one-year anniversary of China jailing two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor.