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Workers Vanguard No. 1076

16 October 2015

British Columbia, Canada

Labor Must Combat Anti-Asian Racism

The following article is reprinted from Spartacist Canada No. 185 (Summer 2015), newspaper of our comrades of the Trotskyist League/Ligue Trotskyste.

Anti-Chinese racism is always bubbling near the surface in British Columbia. The targets vary—immigration, language, “foreign ownership,” “monster houses”—but the toxic racism is a constant. Thus a long-running campaign against Chinese-language signs in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond saw the city council vote on May 25 to direct staff to come up with a bylaw against “visual clutter.” This marked a retreat from its earlier determination to ban Chinese-only signs outright, but there was no mistaking that Chinese people were the target. Even so, this measure did not satisfy the reactionaries who sought a ban. Among them was Harold Steves, a longtime city councillor and well-known NDPer [supporter of the social-democratic New Democratic Party], who declared that “the signs should all be in English.”

With nearly 100,000 ethnic Chinese (half the population), Richmond has the highest proportion of first-generation immigrants of any Canadian municipality. Despite this, according to the municipal government’s own survey, just over three percent of all Richmond shops display Chinese-only signs. Yet this vicious campaign has been on the boil for years. In 2013, a petition seeking to make it an offence to have commercial signs that are not at least 70 percent English (or, hypocritically, French) got 1,000 signatories. Sounding like a modern-day white Rhodesian, one of them declaimed: “We, the new visible minorities, are experiencing exclusion.... Why do I have to be an outsider?” (Toronto Star, 23 March 2013).

Last November, as the issue resurfaced during the municipal elections, the virulently racist “Immigration Watch Canada” unfurled a large banner atop a busy Richmond highway with the message: “Fight Gridlock: Cut Immigration.” This outfit, which is promoted by open fascists and has links to similar anti-immigration groups in the U.S., Britain and Australia, rails against “the indignity that Richmond citizens and all other Canadians will continue to endure.” These sick bigots fulminate about communities being “overwhelmed by immigrants” and predict there “might well be civil war over control of many Canadian cities”! Showing their contempt for all minorities, they also attempted to foment a racist backlash against the largely Punjabi port truckers during the latter’s strike last year, blaming them for “displacing” white Canadian workers.

Many of these same reactionary “English only” forces also oppose funding English as a Second Language classes and other services which are essential for immigrants to be able to work and more generally navigate society. Meanwhile, capitalist governments at every level are slashing ESL programs to the bone. Against such anti-immigrant bigotry, we Marxists oppose all “official language” edicts and are against privileges for any language. We demand equal language rights for all. We support bilingual (or multilingual) education where necessary, and the provision of services in any language—French, English, Cree, Inuktitut, Chinese, Punjabi—where circumstances warrant.

Over 40 percent of Metro Vancouver residents have mother tongues other than English, with languages from China, India and the Philippines topping the list. Immigrants make up a strategic component of the working class in B.C. and they bring many valuable political experiences from their homelands. In its own defense, the workers movement must reject anti-immigrant reaction and the kind of racist filth pushed by outfits like Immigration Watch, which can only poison the struggles of labour against capital and bring defeat.

A History of Anti-Chinese Racism

Always an integral part of British Columbia’s history, Chinese people contributed their sweat and blood to build a modern industrial province. Settling in B.C. at least as long ago as the white colonists, many came from California and China to join the gold rush of 1858, when the British officially founded the mainland territory. Others already lived in Victoria, in the then-separate colony of Vancouver Island. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they consistently represented 5-10 percent of the B.C. population. In the early 1880s, the rail magnates used the skills of Chinese workers (many of whom had worked on the U.S. transcontinental railroad) to build the B.C. leg of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Paid less than their white co-workers and given the most dangerous jobs, at least 600 Chinese workers died on the project.

After the final spike was driven in 1885, Chinese labour was deemed no longer necessary. The Canadian government first curtailed and then outright banned Chinese immigration, slapping on the hated “head tax” and fomenting a backlash against the Chinese. In the House of Commons, the corrupt and racist prime minister John A. Macdonald railed against “the Chinaman” that “he has no British instincts or British feelings or aspirations, and therefore ought not to have a vote.” Chinese Canadians did not obtain the right to vote until 1949.

The capitalists’ anti-Chinese racism was particularly open and raw in B.C. In a typical comment, a Vancouver Sun columnist wrote in 1914: “We want our population to remain a white people; we want no interference with our laboring classes by a cheap yellow, brown or black exodus from any part of Asia; we want our agricultural, our mining, our fishing, our lumbering and all our other industries to be in the hands of white people” (quoted in Patricia E. Roy, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914, 1989). This “yellow peril” racism also saw Japanese Canadians, once a large component of the West Coast fishing industry, essentially wiped out as a thriving community in B.C. Targeted as “enemy aliens,” they were dispossessed and thrown into concentration camps during World War II (see “The Infamy of Canada’s Concentration Camps,” Spartacist Canada No. 64, September 1985). And throughout, Native people were relegated to third-class status.

The magnates of B.C.’s coal mines, fisheries and lumber industry were past masters at using racial divisions to crush workers struggles. Chinese were often recruited as strikebreakers during miners strikes and, despite some exceptional instances of joint class struggles against the bosses, the fishing industry was wracked with divisions between Native, white and Japanese fishermen. Buying into these divide-and-rule schemes, many union officials also whipped up anti-Chinese racism, excluding Asians from union membership. The 1907 Vancouver riot which almost destroyed Chinatown was led by the “Asiatic Exclusion League,” a group formed by the Vancouver Trades and Labor Council.

In stark contrast to the racism peddled by much of the trade-union leadership, William “Big Bill” Haywood, then a leader of the Western Federation of Miners and later a fervent supporter of the 1917 Russian Revolution, telegrammed during the 1903 Vancouver Island miners strike at Ladysmith: “We approve of calling out any or all men necessary to win at Ladysmith. Organize Japanese and Chinese if possible.”

Down With Racist Scapegoating!

Anti-Asian reaction is by no means simply history. B.C.’s ethnic minorities, Chinese people in particular, remain the target of racist slurs and verbal abuse in the workplace and in public. The Canadian-nationalist union tops, too, have inflamed such divisions. Only three years ago, union misleaders in B.C. spearheaded a vicious campaign over the hiring of 200 Chinese temporary foreign workers at a coal mine in northern B.C. As we said at the time: “Such campaigns are poison. They serve only to pit Canadian working people against their class brothers and sisters abroad and, increasingly, against foreign-born workers at home” (“Union Tops’ Ugly Campaign Against Foreign Workers in B.C.,” Spartacist Canada No. 175, Winter 2012/2013). Against this, a class-struggle leadership would fight to unionize such foreign-born workers, demanding equal pay for equal work. It would combat all forms of anti-immigrant bigotry, demanding full citizenship rights for all immigrants.

In the last couple of decades, anti-Chinese bigotry in B.C. has also been inflamed by the supposed role of Asian investors in driving up house prices. According to one recent study, Vancouver now has the second most unaffordable housing market in the world after Hong Kong—worse than London and New York! Vancouver is a rapidly growing city with limited land space. Its housing stock is largely made up of single-family homes which use a huge amount of scarce land. Meanwhile, low interest rates have driven up demand as desperate young families scrape together a down payment. As for the large and growing number of poor and unemployed, they can scarcely find a roach-infested room to flop in. Homelessness, addiction, street prostitution and general human decrepitude are stark and highly visible.

It is the profit-driven capitalist system which creates grinding poverty, rampant unemployment and precarious conditions of life for working people. Under capitalism, housing is always the source of vast profits for developers, real estate magnates and slumlords. But the furor being whipped up over absentee investors from China who have parked their money in downtown condos and multimillion-dollar West Side houses serves only to further fuel a racist backlash.

As for the hundreds of thousands of Chinese people in Canada, they do not form a homogeneous group and are, like all communities, divided along class and other lines. A handful are quite rich capitalists, but the vast majority are workers, students or petty-bourgeois shopkeepers and professionals. There are also divisions between the earlier generations of immigrants and those who have come more recently. Many of the former are Cantonese speakers originally from the former British colony of Hong Kong, while the more recent immigrants are largely Mandarin speakers from mainland China who often have less command of English. Some among the Hong Kong-derived layers have come out publicly against Chinese-only signs in Richmond, in part to try to quell the racist backlash of which they are also victims.

Defend the Gains of the Chinese Revolution!

The differing origins and makeup of B.C.’s Chinese population reflect developments in contemporary China itself. The 1949 Chinese Revolution swept away the rule of the warlords and their European imperialist masters. Despite profound deformations from the outset under the rule of a nationalist Stalinist bureaucracy, the workers state that emerged represents a tremendous gain for workers and the oppressed the world over. Hong Kong, in contrast, remained a capitalist enclave under British rule until it was repatriated to China in 1997.

Thanks to its collectivized economy, China has brought hundreds of millions of people out of dire poverty into social production and massively advanced living standards. The state-owned enterprises that remain at the heart of the economy are not operated for the profit of a tiny handful of ultra-rich capitalists, unlike private companies under capitalism. For this reason, the imperialist powers will not rest until they have regained China for untrammelled exploitation. It is in the interests of workers everywhere to stand unconditionally in defense of China against imperialism and capitalist restoration.

China’s collectivized economy has somewhat shielded it from the depredations of the world capitalist market, but the rule of the Stalinist bureaucracy under Mao and his successors has blocked the road to the achievement of genuine socialism. To fully realize the potential of the collectivized economy, the bureaucracy must be swept away through a workers political revolution and replaced with a government based on workers democracy. Instead of the Stalinists’ pipedream of “peaceful coexistence” with the capitalist-imperialist world, a revolutionary government of the workers and peasants would fight for a perspective of international socialist revolution.

In introducing “market reforms” beginning in the 1980s, the Chinese Stalinists have helped create a new class of capitalist entrepreneurs on the mainland, and since 1997 have maintained a capitalist economy in Hong Kong. Many of these capitalistic elements, whether in Hong Kong or on the mainland, fear a return to a more “command” type of economy with potential risks of expropriation of their wealth, and look to places like Australia and Canada as “stable” bourgeois democracies where their investments will be safe. A China ruled by workers and peasants councils would expropriate the growing class of private Chinese capitalists as well as the Hong Kong tycoons. China’s all-round development toward socialism is crucially dependent on working-class revolution in the advanced capitalist countries, which would open the road to a global planned economy based on the highest level of technology and industry.

Unchain B.C. Labour!

These days, the bourgeois media portray Vancouver as a temperate “Sea-to-Sky” playground for the rich. But the city also has the poorest urban area in the country—indeed, a strip of East Hastings on the Downtown Eastside resembles a Third World shantytown where the destitute and homeless are dumped. As the capitalists attack unions, jobs and living conditions, they are eager to manipulate national and ethnic divisions within the working class so as to keep workers divided and paralyze their struggles. For the exploiting class, racist campaigns over language, “foreign” (B.C. code for Chinese) investors or foreign-born workers are made to order. This also fosters nationalism and with it the illusion that the workers have a common interest with their Canadian capitalist exploiters.

The multiracial working class in B.C., with its strategic contingents of longshoremen, port truckers, construction, forestry and other workers, has immense potential social power. But this power is shackled by a nationalist, pro-capitalist union bureaucracy together with its political allies in the NDP. Against divisive scapegoating and chauvinism, the proletariat needs to mount a class-struggle fight against the capitalist order—and that can only be based on the understanding that labour and capital have no common interests.

A successful fight for jobs, decent housing and health care for all hinges on the struggle to forge a multiracial revolutionary workers party. Such a party would champion the cause of all the oppressed, fighting for a socialist revolution to sweep away the entire capitalist system. A workers government would rip the means of production from the hands of the exploiters, and seize the ritzy office towers, mansions and empty condos in order to transform them into housing and other socially useful facilities. It would create a socialist planned economy in the interests of the whole of the working people. Native, Asian, black or white—workers of the world unite!


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