“Go home! Go home! Go home!”
The chants rang out of a crowd of over 100 Chinese Canadians who had gathered outside the Markham Civic Centre this summer, many of them holding white placards emblazoned with large, red English and Chinese letters.
“Not In My Backyard!” the protesters continued.
“Protect Our City! Protect Our Home!”
“Make Our Home Safer!”
At the front of the group stood two men, carrying a large banner that read “ILLEGAL FREERIDER NOT INVITED.”
Another even larger banner read: “MARKHAM SAY NO TO ILLEGAL BORDER CROSSERS,” followed by a Chinese translation below.
Several speeches blasted through megaphones. One speaker, appearing to be near tears, accused the government of making the country less safe with its weak refugee policy. The overall message was clear: asylum seekers are dangerous, so don’t let them into Markham, on the outskirts of Toronto.
The rhetoric at that July 28 rally bore clear resemblance to the right-wing nativism that has grown in stature in today’s political atmosphere. A white man wearing a shirt with the symbol of the Canadian Combat Coalition (CCC), a militant fascist group, even showed up—the only non-Chinese participant in the crowd.
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It didn’t take long, however, for the anti refugee rally to meet its match, as a group of young, mostly Chinese Canadian counter-protesters emerged from the parking lot area. They carried their own banner that said, “Refugees Welcome,” and settled next to a decorative fountain.
Suddenly, a man in a black t-shirt and backpack walked up to them and snatched a megaphone held by a counter-protester. He tossed it into the fountain, sparking a series of confrontations that forced police to intervene.
Several people threw fists and pulled each other’s hair as the confrontation devolved into sporadic episodes of violent hysteria. The counter-protestors eventually left.
Charles Jiang and Shan Hua “Shannon” Lu were the two main organizers behind the rally. Jiang, a businessman who ran unsuccessfully as the PC nominee for Markham-Unionville recently, is now running for Ward 2 councillor in Markham. Lu is a real estate agent who initially threw her name into Markham’s mayoral race before pulling out right after the protest. Neither agreed to talk to VICE News for this piece.
The demonstration was based on an unfounded rumour that the Mayor of Markham, Frank Scarpitti, was going to open up unused municipal facilities to asylum seekers as temporary holding spaces. Organizers of the July rally portrayed the issue as one of “illegal border crossers” being put up in fancy hotels by a feckless Trudeau administration.
No such decision has been made and Scarpitti has since gone on the air to slam the protesters for “spreading misinformation.”
Lu and Jiang also presented a petition on August 1 signed by more than 1,000 people to the office of Markham’s deputy mayor Jack Heath, calling on the city to not accept any “illegal border crossers,” a nebulous phrase that has been used ubiquitously by Conservatives, including by Ontario Premier Doug Ford and federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer.
Issues such as immigration and terrorism — and drawing links between the two — have long been used as dog whistles to galvanize the more xenophobic elements of society. But the recent emboldening of far-right voices in North America has moved the practice from the margins to the political and electoral mainstream. Donald Trump is the most obvious case, but Canada has had its own examples. Toronto itself has been the site of regular, albeit small, far-right rallies for the past few years.
A number of politicians and organizers in the Chinese Canadian communities in and around Toronto have also seized on the rhetoric, using it to cement an active political base heading into next month’s municipal elections.
The latest rally in Markham was a show of force by this relatively new group, which presented its anti-refugee slogans within broader messages like “Defend our borders!” and keeping the streets safe from foreign terrorists.
“There’s a danger with underestimating the emergence of far-right ideas and politics within our communities,” says Edward Wong, one of the progressive organizers who showed up as counter-protester at the July rally.
"There’s a level of sophistication with the organizing around these ideas within our community."
“A lot of the time we just hear how they’re bad people who should be ignored or educated, but there’s a level of sophistication with the organizing around these ideas within our community,” he said.
The notion of a vulnerable country being exploited by “welfare queens,” many of whom are foreign outsiders, has been a familiar refrain of the political right. Equally popular is rhetoric related to “law and order,” which is how anti-refugee sentiments are often couched.
Proponents of these ideas try to frame them as in perfect alignment with “Chinese morals.”
“Values-wise, it’s really a natural thing for Chinese people to have come together with the conservative politics,” says Christina Liu, a staunchly Chinese Canadian conservative activist in Toronto who knows both Jiang and Lu. She didn’t attend July’s rally but says she agrees with its overall “law and order” message. Liu emigrated from China 15 years ago and is now running for Ward 31 councillor in Toronto. “Chinese social values and beliefs align almost 100 percent with the Conservatives, so it’s a natural fit,” she says.
According to Liu, the Chinese community is among a number of Asian communities who would rather work hard to get ahead than portray itself as a marginalized group that “take[s] advantage of social assistance or the loopholes in society.” As a staunch proponent of “law and order,” Liu has emphasized that “safety and security” is the “number one item” on her platform.
“Of course, we care first and foremost about the safety of the community and also the safety and education of our children. So we obviously don’t want illegal people coming and many think it will make Markham less secure,” says Steven Chen, a businessman who’s running for mayor of Markham this fall. He’s also sympathetic towards the rally’s anti-refugee message, which he insists comes out of a “pro- community safety” outlook, although he did not attend the rally.
“Illegal border crossers” are thus threats to this safety. They’ve also been framed as the recipients of undeserved privilege by the federal government, which critics claim allows them into the country with minimal screening while making it nearly impossible for legal, Chinese immigrants to sponsor their family members from overseas.
“I don’t have a problem with admission of legal refugees, meaning they go through passport control and all that to seek asylum,” says Joe Li, a Markham regional councillor who hails from India’s Hakka Chinese minority. “But I do have a difficulty when it comes to Chinese people who’ve spent years going through the system and fail to bring their families over, while they’re letting in all these bogus refugees — I have strong feelings about that.”
"Why then is the prime minister letting in all these refugees? He needs to answer that."
“All I know is that I’ve dealt with legitimate applicants in Markham, who I’ve written letters for, and who’ve been denied when it comes to bringing in their family members — so why then is the prime minister letting in all these refugees? He needs to answer that,” Li says.
For some of the counter-protesters, the language emanating from conservative wings of their community is reminiscent of “alt right” and white supremacist rhetoric. They’re also grappling now with a dearth of progressive politics or organizing within the suburban Chinese community.
“There’s a portion of the community that I think have been politicized if not indoctrinated by right-wing ideas and by some right-wing Chinese media,” says Justin Kong, an independent, progressive community organizer who showed up at the July protest in Markham.
“They’ve not been engaged by different types of press or politics because the progressive organizing tends to be more urban and downtown-centric.”
“The attitude among progressives can’t just be that these suburban spaces are inherently conservative and so nothing can be done — that’s just not true,” he says.
Wong, whose megaphone was wrested away from him and tossed in the fountain during the demonstration (leaving a bloody gash on his right thumb), pointed to a “smart” reframing of certain issues in ways that hit at genuine concerns among Chinese Canadians, such as sponsorship of family members from overseas.
“None of this came out of nowhere,” says Wong. “From what we can tell, there seems to be operatives and individuals associated with the Conservatives who’ve been trying to push the party into the community for years, and one way they’ve been doing this is to push certain issues like terrorism or the anti-refugee issue.”
But the very idea that conservative values are Chinese values also needs to be debunked, according to Kong.
"It's hard to sum up exactly what 'Chinese values' even are," he adds. "What you have are politicians trying to essentialize a long and rich tradition to serve their narrow political and personal ambitions, which isn't so different from what many far-right racists do against Chinese people in terms of stereotyping. Within these essentialized versions of 'Chinese values,' they'll insert rhetoric of how real, law-abiding immigrants work hard for their middle class lifestyle while those at the bottom stay there because they wait around for handouts."
Ontario’s previous sex-ed curriculum under the Liberals was another one of those issues that galvanized support for conservative politics among a significant portion of Toronto’s Chinese population. It became a lightning rod that elicited a strong enough reaction by many Chinese Canadians in Toronto to help turn it into a tangible political bloc.
"None of this came out of nowhere."
“Our children need guidance and we don’t want them becoming sexually active without the necessary information and without knowing what the risks are in front of them,” says Liu, who was a leading figure in 2015 among Chinese Canadian parents who helped organize opposition to the curriculum. Liu alone recruited around 3,000 people into her advocacy group by using the popular Chinese app, WeChat, which functions like a mix of Facebook and WhatsApp.
Liu is also a Christian who says that the old Liberal curriculum was “full of scientific deficiencies” that presented an “ideologically driven” perspective on sex aimed at exposing children to sexual matters too early and in an irresponsible way. She is part of a growing wave of Chinese evangelical activists who organize partly via church congregations throughout the city.
“There has been a number of churches that served as ways to build and organize Chinese immigrants, who often feel very isolated in a new country and without community,” Wong says. “Churches provide important communal spaces that often address material needs as well. The thing is, once people are drawn in, these spaces are often used for political organizing, particularly with regard to conservative issues like sex-ed or abortion.”
Wong also notes that July’s anti-refugee protest made an incorrect and conspiratorial connection with the recent shooting on Danforth, when 29-year-old Faisal Hussain shot into a crowd and killed two people. He says that he and other counter-protesters were loudly chastised as being “insensitive” to the tragedy and to its victims.
Hussain grew up in Canada and had a troubled history of crime and mental illness. Yet the nonexistent connection made between his crime and asylum seekers resembles the sort of misinformation spread after the shooting by some far right voices.
Connections to racist and white supremacist ideas and rhetoric have been more visible among Toronto’s Chinese conservative circles ahead of October’s municipal elections. It’s the Chinese Canadian candidates themselves who’ve been actively and openly displaying such sentiments. In addition to protest organizers Jiang and Lu, candidates such as Min Xie (running to become a Toronto school board trustee) and Steven Chen (candidate for Ward 30 councillor, Toronto; not the Markham mayoral candidate who has the same name), have been re-tweeting and praising far-right figures.
"One of the possible silver linings is that it’s served as a wake-up call for a lot of us."
On Aug 21, Min retweeted a video for Faith Goldy, a white supremacist, in which she asks donors to contribute to her campaign for Toronto’s mayoralty. On Aug 1, Chen tweeted a video of Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant celebrating a legal victory by English far-right activist Tommy Robinson. Chen tagged Min in his tweet, along with other municipal candidates Shawn Lin (Toronto District School Board trustee candidate) and Haiyan Jiang (York school board trustee candidate).
Min, Chen, Lin, (all of whom did not agree to speak to VICE News) and others on the Chinese Canadian right regularly retweet and tag each other in posts filled with far-right, anti-refugee rhetoric. Though it’s a long shot to identify any of these conservative candidates as outright sympathizers of white nationalism, July’s anti-refugee rally in Markham was praised by a new Canadian far-right podcast called, “The Ensign Hour.” In the podcast’s second episode, which aired right after the rally, the hosts of the show engage in demeaning stereotyping of Chinese people in general, but had positive things to say about the demonstration’s overall premise.
The recent arrest of Ibrahim Ali, a Syrian refugee who landed in Vancouver over a year ago, in connection to the death of 13-year-old Marissa Shen has further fueled anti-refugee sentiment among this group of Chinese political activists. Ali has been charged with first degree murder in relation to Shen’s death. Jiang and Chen (Toronto’s Ward 30 candidate) have both posted tweets that present Shen’s death as a result of the government’s “reckless open-border policy.”
Both Wong and Kong express a certain degree of shock in witnessing this rise in far-right Chinese populism, particularly among political candidates. Yet both also emphasize that right-wing sentiment in general doesn’t represent the whole of Canada’s Chinese communities.
“One of the possible silver linings is that it’s served as a wake-up call for a lot of us, who’ve been driven to action,” Wong says. “Several meetings have now taken place where there’s been an outpouring of support for galvanizing progressive voices in the community. It’s at the very early stages but the willingness and desire is there, even beyond Toronto and at a national level.”
Steven Zhou is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Reach him @stevenzzhou