British Columbia has seen a massive uptick in anti-Asian racist attacks, which have skyrocketed by 717 per cent in Vancouver compared to the same period last year. The proliferation of anti-Asian racism reflects a general international trend fueled by governments and the capitalist press, spreading conspiracy theories and xenophobic propaganda to distract from their own miserable handling of the pandemic.
Anti-Asian hate crimes in B.C.
Between March 10, 2020 and Feb. 28 this year, more than 1,100 hate crimes and racist attacks were reported across Canada. While all provinces have seen an increase in anti-Asian racism, B.C. has reported the highest levels and the highest increase, accounting for 44 per cent of all cases reported. Vancouver in particular has been a hotbed for anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic. Chinese cultural centres, businesses, and so on have seen racist graffiti, smashed windows, and other attacks.
This news from this police report comes just weeks after a tragic shooting in Atlanta, where eight mostly East Asian women were murdered by a white gunman. Fred Kwok, chair of Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Centre, stated in an interview with Global News that Chinese Canadians in the city fear that a similar event could occur here as racist attacks become more and more common.
A breakdown of reported incidents provided by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter gives us a clearer picture of the connections between racist attacks and the pandemic. Eighty-four per cent of those who reported experiencing racist attacks were East Asian, and six per cent were Southeast Asian. While 73 per cent of attacks were reported to be verbal harassment, physical force and aggression counted for 11 per cent, and being coughed or spat on comprised 10 per cent of all attacks. The act of coughing and spitting on people is particularly significant, connecting back to a belief that Asian people as a whole are responsible for the virus and seeking to punish them by inflicting it upon them. Simply wearing masks and personal protective equipment as an Asian person accounts for 11 per cent of attack motives, which also shows a connection between anti-mask/COVID-denialism and anti-Chinese sentiments. The vast majority of attacks take place in public areas, public transit and shops or businesses. Essential workers of East Asian descent are especially vulnerable to racist attacks both in public and at the workplace.
Asian women in particular are extremely vulnerable to racist attacks, accounting for 60 per cent of all cases. Racist and orientalist stereotypes of Asian women as docile, submissive objects for men’s sexual use run rampant in our society. Asian women are thus doubly subject to racist and sexist attacks in public and at work. It is no surprise that many Chinese Canadians, particularly women, are reporting feeling unsafe and even fear for their lives just going about their daily business.
Why is this happening?
When the pandemic started, governments eagerly sought a scapegoat to shift blame for the crisis and their poor handling of the pandemic onto. Reactionary politicians like Donald Trump called the disease the “China flu” and the “Wuhan flu”. Trump and others also spread conspiracy theories about China and COVID-19, insinuating the government of China had unleashed the disease as an attack. Many leading Canadian conservative politicians, for example, signed a letter last April condemning China for covering up its role in the spread of the virus, hinting that China bore direct responsibility for COVID-19.
Erin O’Toole, leader of the federal Conservative Party, has been one of the loudest voices in the crusade against China. He wrote last year that Canada was on the verge of a new cold war with China, declaring that China held Canada’s economy in a hostage situation and had gained influence in “key western nations” through academic institutions. O’Toole has blamed China for a number of problems during the pandemic, including the delay of vaccine rollouts. He has called on the Liberal government to be more aggressive against China and to, for example, ban Huawei from 5G networks and refuse to cooperate with the Chinese government. Justin Trudeau even played with blaming China, insinuating that the Chinese government might have been responsible for the spread of COVID-19, thereby lending credit to a conspiracy theory.
The fact that China has been the go-to political scapegoat for the ruling class in countries like Canada is part of a broader context of growing conflicts between U.S.-Canadian imperialism and Chinese imperialism. Although America remains the richest and most powerful country in the world, the rapid rise of China as a world power and its increasing role on the world stage has come into conflict with the interests of western imperialism and threatens to undermine their dominant position. This has led to deteriorating relations and escalating conflicts between China and western powers.
As part of this campaign to ensure the continued unquestioned dominance of western imperialism, the ruling classes of the U.S., Canada and Europe have conducted a propaganda campaign against China to whip up nationalistic and patriotic sentiments in hopes of uniting the population behind them, while also conveniently distracting from the problems at home. The press regularly runs articles referring to China as “evil”, accusing China of a plot for world domination, of infiltrating Canadian cultural, educational and political institutions, and so on. An atmosphere of fear, hysteria and hostility towards China and Chinese people has been created as a result.
These conflicts are only intensifying. Parliament unanimously passed a resolution championed by Conservative politicians which condemns China’s treatment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a genocide. The Canadian government should not be lecturing anyone about “genocide” and human rights violations, as its treatment of Indigenous peoples is despicable. Despite the thin humanitarian veneer, this resolution is just one of many escalations against China to come. Although the vote itself is mostly symbolic, it is part of a broader effort to isolate China on the world stage and to strengthen nationalistic sentiments at home. The fact is that the Canadian ruling class is not the least bit concerned about human rights—Canada continues to earn billions from arms sales to Saudi Arabia, and is the fifth largest investor in Xinjiang—but they are very interested in turning the rage of the population at home away from Ottawa and towards Beijing.
The fact that anti-Asian hate crimes in Canada are highest in British Columbia is shocking, but not surprising. Since 1871, when B.C. joined Confederation, anti-Asian racism has been a key and essential tool for the provincial capitalists to divide and conquer the working class and maintain political power. Chinese immigrants first came to the province seeking jobs in mines, forestry, and the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. These immigrants were mostly given the lowest paid, most dangerous jobs. The capitalists used Asian immigrants as a pool of low-paid, unorganized labour. They would also use this to drive down the wages and conditions of all workers, scapegoating the foreign workers for the depression of wages and setting them against each other. B.C. was also the first province to ban Chinese citizens from voting in 1872. During the 1918 influenza pandemic, the ruling class of B.C. scapegoated Asian immigrants as the cause of the disease, and used it as a justification to segregate the Asian community entirely from the white community. Sound familiar?
The exact same racist scapegoating is being used by the B.C. ruling class to this day. For years, the ruling class has made use of divisions between Chinese and non-Chinese people, particularly in Vancouver. When the housing crisis hit Vancouver, it was Chinese immigrants who got the blame. Economic academics, journalists, and right-wing politicians all helped to spread the lie that Chinese immigrants and foreign buyers were responsible for the Vancouver housing crisis. This is despite the fact that foreign buyers made up just five per cent of home buyers across the province in 2018, and this number has been dropping since while the housing crisis has gotten worse. Language and cultural issues are often used by right-wing politicians in the city to stoke fear and divert attention from real issues. This has led to a particularly strong anti-Chinese sentiment throughout British Columbia, which have been told to view Chinese people as a whole as the reason for their economic problems.
To fight anti-Asian racism, fight capitalism!
The ruling class has also profited handsomely off of the oppression, exploitation and division of Asian workers in Canada. Today, Asian Canadian workers experience some of the highest rates of poverty in Canada. An analysis of Canada’s 2016 census data shows that “among Korean, Arab and West Asian Canadians, the poverty rate ranged from 27 per cent to 32 percent.” For Chinese Canadians, it was 20 per cent. Asian Canadians constitute a significant portion of essential workers, especially in health care and retail. Not only are Asian Canadians thus far more vulnerable to COVID-19 exposure, they are also at high risk of racist attacks at work.
The pandemic has only accentuated these already existing inequalities. Thirty-one percent of Chinese, 37 per cent of Southeast Asian, and 42 per cent of Filipino workers have experienced job loss and reduced hours due to COVID-19. The unemployment rate is far higher among minorities, including Asians, and it is even worse for women and foreign workers. This shows clearly the need to connect the working class struggle and the fight against racism.
Thousands mobilized on the streets across Canada recently to show solidarity with Asian Canadians and to fight anti-Asian racism. This is despite hard lockdowns, curfews and other restrictive measures. The labour movement as a whole has a duty to link up and organize with these movements and take a leading role, mobilizing the working class in solidarity to combat racism on the streets and in the workplace. There is a growing understanding that “an injury to one is an injury to all” is not a mere slogan, but a material reality. An attack on one section of the working class inevitably means an attack on all.
Although B.C. has a rotten history of anti-Asian racism, the labour movement has a proud history of combating racism through labour organizing and socialist politics. During the Great Depression, the racial divide in the working class began to soften as the entire working class came under attack. This divide was not overcome without struggle, but through the active participation and struggle of great labour activists who fought tooth and nail to unite the unions across all lines of division: people like Roy Mah, a Chinese-Canadian labour activist who wrote the first Cantonese-language paper for Chinese lumber workers in Canada and brought over 2,500 Chinese workers into the International Woodworkers of America (IWA). Darshan Singh Sangha, a communist and son of poor Punjabi farmers, was one of the founders of the IWA, where he united workers across religious, racial and other divisive lines. Sangha said: “One of the greatest achievements of the IWA was the uniting of all woodworkers—white, Indian, Chinese, Japanese—irrespective of race and colour.”
These are the militant labour traditions we need to revive today. As the pandemic rages on, the government will only continue to exploit the discontent, anger and fear of the population and direct it towards scapegoats such as immigrants while attacking workers of all races. The fact is that you cannot have capitalism without racism and oppression in all its forms. It is the movement of the working class alone that can topple the racist, capitalist system and end the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and anti-Asian racism—both of which are the fault of a failing capitalist system.