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How China’s ‘United Front’ Endangers Ethnic Chinese Abroad

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How China’s ‘United Front’ Endangers Ethnic Chinese Abroad

Amid the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, China’s United Front Work Department is putting the Chinese diaspora in greater danger.

How China’s ‘United Front’ Endangers Ethnic Chinese Abroad
Credit: Illustration by Catherine Putz

Countries around the world continue to suffer in the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. At the same time, the issue of China’s role in this global pandemic – and how to hold the Chinese regime accountable — is getting more attention.

Countries like the United States, Canada, and Australia, and more are joining the discussion regarding the origin of the new coronavirus strand that causes COVID-19. More importantly, countries are beginning to ponder the post-COVID international order as the world economy goes into recession as a result of this global pandemic. The United States continues to pressure China over its actions in the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, Australia and China are stuck in some heated exchanges as the Chinese regime threatens to boycott Australian goods over Canberra’s calls for an investigation into the early handling of COVID-19 in China.

In Canada, the country’s relationship with China is becoming a critical part of political campaigns. Erin O’Toole, a Canadian member of parliament running to become the leader of Canada’s Official Opposition, claims that Canada is on the brink of a new Cold War with China. Peter MacKay, another Conservative leadership candidate, is calling to use the Magnitsky Act to sanction Chinese officials over their mishandling of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has damaged the Canadian economy significantly. According to Statistics Canada, the country lost 2 million jobs in April, driving the unemployment rate up to 13 percent. A forecast made by Canada’s Parliamentary Budget Officer predicted that the Canadian economy will shrink by 5.1 percent in 2020.

These concerns are echoed by the latest media stories on China’s influence in Canada and its implications for the general public. Canadian media outlet Global News reported that China utilized all channels, from diplomatic means and state-owned enterprises to the Chinese diaspora community associations under the influence of the Chinese United Front Work Department, to purchase personal protective equipment as the COVID-19 outbreak troubled China from mid-January on. According to the Global News reports, these actions were supported by networks from cities like Vancouver, Toronto, New York, Melbourne, and Tokyo. The Communist regime was attempting to take advantage of its diaspora community to bulk-buy N95 masks in order to ship “back batches of scarce supplies for the motherland.”

At the same time, Canada faces a shortage of medical supplies and is relying on China for critical items such as masks and gowns.

This is not the first time that China’s United Front Work Department attempted to weaponize overseas Chinese communities for its own political interests. A CBC report from March suggested that China’s efforts to use their diaspora, undercover agents, and groups based on Canadian campuses constitute significant and sustained foreign interference activities. Efforts from China’s United Front Work Department in Canada have been frequent and visible in recent years, ranging from attempting to stop the Toronto District School Board from cutting ties with the Chinese government-backed Confucius Institute in 2014 to organizing group ad-buys against demonstrators seeking democratic reforms in Hong Kong last year. In September 2019, the Chinese Students and Scholars Association at McMaster University was banned by the campus student government. The organization is believed to coordinate closely with Chinese diplomatic officials, including to surveil and intimidate students on campus who speak out against the Chinese government. In February 2019, the Chinese student association reported a Uyghur activist to the Chinese Consulate General Office in Toronto after a campus event regarding the Uyghur re-education camps in China.

The efforts by China’s United Front are earning more scrutiny as China adopts a more aggressive diplomatic approach against countries around the world. In addition to the country’s on-going “wolf warrior” diplomacy and disinformation campaigns, China is also showing interest in expanding its nuclear arsenal to deter the United States.

It is a positive sign that more countries and decisionmakers are realizing China’s attempts to influence democracies. But on the other hand, such scrutiny is undermined by negative outcomes and consequences: racism and hatred, particularly against those of Chinese or East Asian descent.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said that the coronavirus pandemic is unleashing “a tsunami of hate and xenophobia, scapegoating and scaremongering.” And even in Canada, one of the most progressive countries around the world, racial-based hatred is starting make headlines on a more frequent basis.

Anti-Asian racism has been on the rise in major cities in Canada. Vancouver’s Chinese Cultural Centre was tagged with hateful and racist graffiti that targets residents of Chinese descent. Also in Vancouver, in April, an Asian senior was attacked in a racially motivated incident; in May, another Asian woman was assaulted while waiting for the bus. Similar incidents also happened in other countries. In the United States, some Asian American community members are using GoPro cameras and guns to protect themselves against hate and discrimination.

These biases and hatred are also being amplified by several Conservative-leaning politicians both in Canada and the United States. Derek Sloan, a member of parliament of the Conservative Party of Canada, questioned the country’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, on her loyalty to Canada. Sloan’s remarks were denounced by many, including his fellow Conservative caucus colleagues, as racist. Sloan attempted to avoid apologizing to Tam following the incident, despite calls from his party to remove him as one of the Conservative caucus members. Sloan is also one of the party’s leadership race candidates. If elected, Derek Sloan would become Canada’s leader of the Official Opposition and will have an opportunity to challenge the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the next Canadian general election.

In the United States, President Donald Trump previously used the term “Chinese virus” to shift the blame over mismanaging the COVID-19 pandemic in the country. Those comments hurt Asian communities and fueled xenophobic sentiments within the country.

Between persecution from the authoritarian Chinese regime to race-based hatred targeting East Asian communities, individuals of Chinese descent are caught in the escalating geopolitical confrontations between China and the West. In addition to the systematic struggles of combating racism and injustices, they also face more frequent troubles from China’s United Front Work Department.

While some Conservative-leaning politicians unleash their hostilities against visible minorities in the country, the United Front backed-organizations supported by the Chinese Communist regime are putting the diaspora in greater danger. From exacerbating prejudices to taking advantage of the diaspora communities, the Chinese regime has no hesitation in achieving political gains at the cost of exploiting the Chinese overseas communities.