Ethnic allegiance, politics can prove to be a dicey mix

When Chinese-Canadians help put one of their community into political power, can they expect something extra in return?

There are more than 10 elected officials who are of Chinese heritage in various levels of government in this province. Many of them owe much of their electoral success to strong financial and organizational support from the Chinese-Canadian community.

Yet the community has placed very little political demand on them to advance their interests. And none of them has openly stated that he is there to represent the Chinese-Canadian community.

Some may say this is a sign of integrity on the part of a community keen to participate in the political process without trading in favours. I see it differently – as a missed opportunity to fully take part in the representative part of democracy. The problem is the Chinese-Canadian community is conflicted over what it wants and expects of its leaders. It has not yet found its mature political voice.

Douglas Jung, the first member of Parliament of Chinese descent, once told me the Chinese-Canadian community was his best ally as well as his harshest critic during his tenure from 1957 to 1962. Raymond Chan, the current MP from Richmond, was relentlessly criticized (most vociferously by his Chinese-Canadian constituents) for his change of stance on the issue of human rights in China.

There is a Chinese proverb that says, “The more you care about an individual, the more critical you are of that individual.” Many Chinese-Canadians certainly live up to that proverb in dealing with their leaders. Yet there is also a great deal of pride when members of their community are elected to political positions.

After I was elected to city council in 1990, I was invited by a friend from the Taiwanese-Canadian community to a dinner to celebrate my success. When my wife and I arrived, we were surprised to find more than 200 people on hand to welcome the newest “father and mother official”, as municipal leaders were called in old China.

The community is known to rally behind aspiring politicians during the nomination and election process. Those who were intimately involved in the 1993 federal election will remember the nomina­tion fight in the Tory camp be­tween Dr. K. K. Wan and Geoff Chutter, and in the Liberal camp between Raymond Chan and Herb Dhaliwal.

Thousands of people from the Chinese-Canadian community turned out to support Wan and Chan, signing up as campaign workers. Many even worked across political lines in both campaigns.

And what does the community expect of their politicians once they are elected to office? The community certainly expects its politicians to attend a great number of banquets and events.

Every Chinese-Canadian politician in town will tell you it is not uncommon for them to attend three to four banquets a night during the Chinese New Year season. Officiating at business openings is another common chore; during my three years as a city councilor, I cut ribbons in Vancouver, Burnaby and Richmond.

But on a deeper level where community values and social issues are concerned, politicians hear mostly silence from their Chinese-Canadian constituents. Though federal politicians elected from B.C. are expected to fight for the welfare of British Columbians, and Vancouver politicians sitting in the provincial legislature are expected to safeguard the interests of local voters, those elected by Chinese-Canadians do not appear to be under any significant obligation of support to their own communities.

This apparent contradiction was discussed in a 1995 series published locally in Sing Tao newspaper.

The conclusion of the Sing Tao columnists was that such support is an old-country tradition worth leaving behind. In fact, they held proponents of the classical point of view in contempt for preaching reverse racial discrimination — for being narrow-minded and undemocratic.

Guo Ding, an editorial writer for Ming Pao, seemed to capture the wishes of the Chinese Canadian community in his editorial after the 1996 civic election. He suggested that the Chinese-Canadian incumbents should first act on their election promises.

He admonished them to make policy decisions from the perspective of the whole com­munity (not just the Chinese-Canadian community) and be careful not to use a double standard when dealing with the Chinese and the non-Chinese community.

As an intellectual argument, this has its strengths. The question, however, is whether it fairly represents the attitudes and expectations of the wider community. My experience in politics suggests it does not. Communities are diverse in their values and very conflicted about their expectations of politicians.

Many feel they are not being well served by leaders who defer to the general at the expense of the distinct. There is a growing sense of frustration among those who fear they cannot make their voices heard as Chinese-Canadians without having to worry about the backlash — about being ostracized as undemocratic.

The community craves leaders to represent its point of view in the political process. It wants someone who is sensitive to their cultural values.

It needs someone who is willing to address issues such as English language training, job training, unemployment, under­employment and recognition of foreign training and work experience.

There is a need not only for spokesmen but for facilitators – many facilitators, because no single person or group can fairly represent the 300,000-plus members of the multifaceted and diverse Chinese-Canadian communities. Canada is ready for stronger Canadian-Chinese voices.

© (This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun on Thursday, September 23, 1999)

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