by Marion Thiabaut and Mathiwe Leiser

The Chinese diaspora has been caught in the crossfire of Ottawa’s row with Beijing over its alleged meddling in Canada’s affairs — facing both intimidation from Chinese operatives and rising stigmatization.

Chinese diaspora Toronto, Ontario
People walk through Chinatown in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 15, 2023. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP.

And each new spat between their ancestral home and adoptive country — the latest being tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats in May — brings additional stress for the community.

Many people in Toronto’s historic Chinatown, where Canada’s maple leaf symbol can be seen on Chinese-language signs posted above busy stores and food marts, appeared uneasy to speak on the record about recent racism and threats.

Allegations of harassment have been described by rights activists and Canada’s ethnic minorities, and documented by Amnesty International in recent years.

Some have accused Chinese undercover agents or proxies of intimidating Chinese Canadians by vowing retribution against their relatives back home.

“What they do is they use family ties to China or Hong Kong to threaten you,” Cheuk Kwan, co-chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, told AFP recently.

Kwan, clad in a black leather jacket, said this includes “death threats, verbal intimidation, or something as simple as saying: ‘We know where your parents live.'”

Chinese diaspora Toronto, Ontario
People walk through Chinatown in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 15, 2023. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP.

Dilnur Anwar, a Uyghur who fled persecution in China and moved to Canada in 2019, has experienced such calls firsthand for years — on an almost daily basis.

“I blocked the (phone) numbers but it doesn’t change anything because they call all the time using other numbers,” said the woman, who now lives in Montreal.

“Sometimes I’m asked to come to the embassy, sometimes it’s an automated message,” she explained.

“I’m very worried because I haven’t heard from my family in six years.”

‘We have lived in fear’

Ottawa and Beijing have been at loggerheads since 2018, when a Huawei executive was arrested on a US warrant in Vancouver and two Canadian nationals were detained in China in apparent retaliation.

Then there was the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese “spy balloons” over North America, clandestine Chinese police stations discovered in Canadian cities and allegations of Beijing’s interference in Canada’s elections.

downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada
A notice is displayed on a pole in Chinatown in downtown Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 15, 2023. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP.

Canada’s Chinese immigrants and their descendants often endure extra scrutiny amid such controversies.

“We will always be deemed to be from China, even though many of us have no connections with China,” lamented Amy Go, co-founder of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice.

“In the past, we have lived in fear,” several dozen Chinese-Canadian associations wrote in an open letter recalling discrimination faced by early Chinese immigrants to North America. “Today, let’s not let it happen again.”

“In recent years, the social pressure exerted on members of our community is such that it is difficult to remain insensitive to it,” they continued, pointing to diplomatic tensions that “are now having a direct impact on our community.”

The first immigrants from China settled in Canada more than 200 years ago. Several waves followed, notably at the end of the 19th century to help build Canada’s transcontinental railway. 

The Canadian Pacific Railroad united a nascent country, but at a severe cost: Hundreds of Chinese workers died from accidents, winter cold, illness and malnutrition.

Amy Go, the president of Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justices
Amy Go, the president of Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justices, is photographed in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, on April 20, 2023. Photo: Cole Burston/AFP.

Today nearly 1.7 million Canadians, almost five percent of the population, trace their roots to China, census figures show.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

There is an urgent need for Ottawa to act to stem a recent rise in racism, many members of the community believe.

It is also important that the government “ensure that Canadians, but also newcomers, are not interviewed (by Chinese agents) or potentially exposed to risks or threats from foreign countries,” said Go.

Ottawa has been gripped of late by revelations that a Canadian MP, Michael Chong, and his relatives in Hong Kong were targeted by Beijing for sanctions over his strong criticisms of China.

On Tuesday, a top Canadian official also concluded that China sought to interfere in Canada’s 2019 and 2021 elections.

Beijing has rejected both accusations as “groundless slander and defamation,” and warned Ottawa against seeking to “sabotage” relations with its second-largest trading partner.

Meanwhile, intimidation like that faced by Anwar, the Uyghur woman in Montreal, might be more extensive than realized, the Toronto association’s Kwan said.

This sort of behavior by China is only “the tip of the iceberg,” he suggested. “We don’t see 90 percent of the iceberg.”

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