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In this Toronto Suburb, Liberals Face Chinese-Language Disinformation Campaign

In Scarborough North, one of Canada’s most diverse ridings, progressive candidates are trying to thwart a rise in right-wing political populism and anti-drug fear-mongering.

by Steven Zhou
Oct 16 2019, 4:51pm

Photos by author.

Last summer, Judy Yeung viewed a crudely made flyer that several of her friends sent her through WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app.

The flyer, in Chinese, showed the faces and names of four Chinese Canadian Liberal MPs placed around a large drawing of a green cannabis leaf, with a big message in red: “These four all support the marijuana killing our children! In 2019, don’t vote for any of them!”

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The anti-Liberal attack ad.

One of those named in the flyer was Shaun Chen, the incumbent Liberal MP for Toronto’s Scarborough North riding. Yeung was, and still is, Chen’s close assistant.

It’s not known who’s behind the flyer, but it has Chen and his party worried.

Chen, a 39-year-old of Hakka Chinese descent, got nearly 19,000 votes in the 2015 federal election—over 8,000 more than the second-place Conservative candidate.

Everything seemed safe.

But in the too close-to-call 2019 election, the flyer is getting some traction. In the past, the Liberals have had a lot of success in Scarborough with their rhetoric celebrating multiculturalism and inclusion. Now this is being challenged by a new right-wing language that attacks Liberals on wedge issues.

Chinese community members in Scarborough North and surrounding areas are being told that their neighbourhoods are under threat, and that the Liberals are only making matters worse with their soft drug and border policies.

While Andrew Scheer’s federal Conservatives have also criticized Trudeau on these issues, their anti-Liberal attacks are a lot more alarmist when they’re not in English. For example, instead of bemoaning the lack of consultation with parents over drug policy, the Conservatives warn that Trudeau will legalize hard drugs next.

In one ad run on the Conservatives’ Chinese-language Facebook page and on WeChat, the party warns, “Only Andrew Scheer and the Conservatives Will Stop Trudeau’s Hard Drugs Legalization Plan and Keep Our Kids Safe.” While the flyer Yeung saw does not bear the Conservative Party logo, the messaging is very similar.

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Shaun Chen, the incumbent Liberal in Scarborough North.

Scarborough North is one of Canada’s most diverse ridings: 92 percent of residents identified as visible minorities in the 2016 census. About a 40-minute drive northeast of the downtown core, most of its neighbourhoods are quintessential suburbs, rows of single detached homes with neatly clipped lawns. Other than leaving for work, middle aged and senior residents can be seen strolling around their block or working on their yard. You don’t have to stick around for all that long to realize that almost all of them are Chinese.

According to the 2016 census, more than 65,000 of Scarborough North’s 98,800 residents are immigrants and over 45,000 residents identify as Chinese, making it by far the riding’s biggest ethnic group. Many in Scarborough North don’t speak English.

The party that manages to galvanize the riding’s Chinese community has a leg up on the opposition. Voter turnout for Chinese immigrants hovers around 60 percent for federal elections.

And while the NDP has had some limited success in the area (Scarborough North is one of six federal ridings that make up Scarborough), the Conservatives have largely been shut out the past decade.

The weed fearmongering flyer shook Chen’s confidence. Multiple supporters were alerting his team to it, a sign that the leaflet was reaching a wide audience via WeChat.

“I was startled by the aggressiveness,” Chen said. “I’d never come across fearmongering like this in our riding, and it’s my fifth election in this area.” (Besides running for MP, Chen also successfully ran three times for school trustee.)

The flyer and the aggressive rhetoric have changed Chen’s strategy. He’s been canvassing door-to-door, signalling that his status as the usual Liberal frontrunner isn’t safe. And he no longer can claim being the only candidate that constituents could identify with: the Conservatives and the NDP are also running Chinese Canadian candidates this year.

“I think it’s very healthy for the Chinese community here to have a diversity of views, but it’s my job to engage them on facts, not gas-station sticker propaganda or fake news,” he said. In the case of weed, Chen said that the flyer amounts to disinformation.

“We have clear regulations around marijuana sales and usage,” Chen emphasized. “You can’t even buy it if you’re under 18.”

But it’s not just the cannabis issue. “I’ve also heard anti-immigrant, anti-refugee sentiment among Chinese residents at the doors. In some cases, I’ve heard outright racist attitudes from them toward newcomers,” he said. “Again, this level of fearmongering has been relatively new.”

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NDP candidate Yan Chen. Photo via Yan Chen campaign.

A month or so after Chen’s camp discovered the anti-Liberal flyer, close to 100 mostly Chinese protesters gathered at city hall in Markham, a city bordering Scarborough North that also has a huge Chinese population. They held signs and banners that read, “Markham say no to illegal border crossers” and “Illegal freerider not invited.” The term “illegal border crosser” has been used by Scheer’s Conservatives, which often share a similar vocabulary with the hard right in their criticisms of Trudeau’s border policies.

The protesters were demonstrating against their mayor debating whether or not to use the city’s facilities to house “illegal border crossers”—migrants who’ve crossed over the U.S.-Canada border seeking asylum. Since March 2017, more than 45,000 people have come into Canada from the U.S. outside of regular “ports on entry.”

It was a strange scene: Chinese immigrants who made a life for themselves in Canada protesting the possibility of others doing the same. One (non-Chinese) attendee of the Markham rally wore a shirt depicting the symbol of the Canadian Combat Coalition (CCC), a racist far-right group that has protested alongside neo-Nazis.

As it turns out, there were some talks between the mayor and Toronto’s Mayor John Tory but nothing was finalized. Canada’s far-right media has explicitly linked the overall intake of refugees with the threat of terrorism and violence, saying, for example, that many Syrian refugees support terrorist groups such as ISIS. Far-right groups Pegida Canada and Soldiers of Odin have used the issue of illegal immigration to galvanize protesters. The Canada Nationalist Party (CNP), which the Canadian Anti-Hate Network labels a neo-Nazi group, is running a candidate in the riding of Scarborough-Guildwood, which also borders Scaborough North.

Conservative Party Leader Andrew Scheer has been seen attending events organized by the Chinese Canadian Conservative Association (CCCA). One of its board members is David Kong, the Conservative candidate for Scarborough North. Kong did not reply to multiple interview requests for this story.

Markham city hall falls within Conservative MP Bob Saroya’s federal riding of Markham-Unionville. Saroya has also campaigned with flyers (featuring Chinese translation, of course) calling for tougher crime laws and stricter border regulations. Another flyer calls for awareness around “cannabis poisoning,” particularly through edibles, which are set to hit the market in December.

Saroya did not respond to multiple interview requests.

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A strip mall in Scarborough North.

Several young, progressive Chinese activists got wind of the Markham protest and decided to show up in opposition. Yan Chen, who is running for the NDP in Scarborough North, was one of them. She noticed that the Markham protest was advertised on WeChat, which many in the Chinese community use at their primary way to communicate, circulate news, and organize events.

Some counter-protesters who showed up were met with physical violence. Yan’s friend had his megaphone grabbed out of his hand and thrown into a fountain. Others were shoved and punched. Eventually the police intervened and the counter-protesters left.

They ended regrouping a few days later and decided to address how misinformation is circulated in the community. At a community workshop on WeChat and media literacy, they looked at two blog posts that had been circulating on WeChat this summer, both of which said that Muslims are likely faking incidents of Islamophobia to gain public sympathy. The app, which has about a billion global users, has in recent years helped galvanize a lot of anti-Muslim sentiment, both in China and the West.

Yan was nominated to run for the NDP in Scarborough North. She sees her candidacy as a direct challenge to the groundswell of right-wing sentiment that has coalesced in Scarborough and Markham.

“So many Chinese people are supporting the Conservatives, mostly because there are no progressive alternatives within the community,” Yan said during a night of canvassing door to door last month. “People have been talking a lot about these Chinese right-wingers, but it’s a very skewed view of our community.”

Yan has been pounding the pavement and knocking on doors for weeks, using her fluent Mandarin to speak to dozens of Chinese voters mostly about healthcare and affordability. She hasn’t found the average Chinese resident to be “ideologically conservative.”

As I followed Yan from one home to another, I watched several residents ask her about the threat of “illegal border crossers.” They said that their friends and family members informed them of the threats.

Yan insists they are the exception, not the rule. “The Conservatives have been mobilizing people on many divisive issues, for example, being hard on crime, being anti-refugee,” she said. “But the people I’ve talked to mostly have more pressing worries like healthcare and job opportunities, but those concerns haven’t been picked up.”

The results suggest that right-wing elements are working overtime in “ethnic” communities, including in Chinese circles, ahead of elections. The goal is certainly to break the current Liberal stranglehold.

But organizers like Yan are openly challenging the myth that the community can’t be politically galvanized by messages of socioeconomic equality and justice. The past year shows that aggressive, often shrill activists are more than willing to fill the void if progressive organizers are slow to engage Chinese Canadians in the area.

Follow Steven on Twitter.

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