Karamveer Lalh: The Chinese government (probably) didn't sabotage Erin O'Toole's chances
We can't be sure without specific, targeted polling. But one big piece of evidence suggests Beijing didn't hurt the Conservatives.
By: Karamveer Lalh
An oft-quoted saying, usually attributed to Albert Einstein, tells us that “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over while hoping for different results.”
The opposite applied to last month’s election: Conservative Party of Canada leader Erin O’Toole achieved almost the same results despite running a substantially different campaign than his predecessor Andrew Scheer.
And while it’s too early to say why, my preliminary work analyzing the numbers and voting trends has led me to conclude that one thing that was not the cause was foreign interference by China (or a Chinese-aligned proxy). The Conservatives clearly have problems connecting with Chinese-Canadian voters, but a close look at the voting pattern makes it hard to conclude that they were the victim of foul play or electoral tampering, despite recent allegations.
O’Toole, of course, campaigned as a Progressive Conservative, touting his Greater Toronto Area (GTA) roots, pro-choice bona fides, and openness to LGBTQ issues. A common refrain among our pundit class is that these are all necessary elements of a Conservative campaign capable of winning in the suburbs. The suburbs around Toronto and Vancouver are seat-rich, relatively affluent, and have a high concentration of voters who are visible minorities. Ultimately, the party that best appeals to and mobilizes voters in those seats typically wins government. In Ontario, the Conservatives closed the gap between themselves and the Liberals by approximately four percent compared to results in that province in 2019. However, this gain of four percent resulted in a net gain of only one seat. The Liberals closed the gap between themselves and the Conservatives on the west coast by about 1.6 per cent, but this small swing was enough to flip three seats to the Liberals.
Within the GTA and Greater Vancouver (GVR), the Conservatives lost five seats to the Liberals:
Aurora—Oak Ridges—Richmond Hill (GTA)
Cloverdale—Langley City (GVR)
Richmond Centre (GVR)
Steveston—Richmond East (GVR)
However, also within Ontario, the Conservatives flipped three seats previously held by the Liberals in 2019:
Bay of Quinte
The day after the election, myself and others noted that a common characteristic among the electoral districts that swung away from the Conservatives towards the Liberals was the large proportion of ethnic Chinese voters. Markham—Unionville, Richmond Centre, and Steveston—Richmond East are three of the top-four most ethnically Chinese electoral districts in the Country.
The Conservatives held Markham—Unionville under MP Bob Saroya since the 2011 redistribution and Richmond Centre under Alice Wong since 2008. These surprising losses must be examined.
But that examination isn’t easy. Public opinion polling companies typically do not release voter identification or issue-based polling data by visible minority status. While we cannot be sure of what caused the decline in support for the Conservative party among majority Chinese communities, certain clues can give us a better idea of what happened.
Two main explanations have been offered thus far: hostile foreign interference by the Chinese government; or a minority community that felt unfairly targeted by Conservative party messaging.
Following the election, defeated Conservative candidate Kenny Chiu of Steveson—Richmond East, in comments made to the National Post, stated that he “[feared] attacks by pro-Beijing forces swung votes against him.” This is not a unrealistic concern. Comments by the Chinese ambassador insinuated that he opposed Erin O’Toole and the Conservative party’s hawkish stance on Canada-Chinese relations. The Global Times, a Chinese state-owned newspaper, took an unusually hostile tone against the Conservative platform, suggesting that Canada could face “counterstrikes” if such proposals were to be implemented. Another Chinese language source, Today Commercial News, falsely stated that if the Conservatives were elected, all individuals or groups associated with China would have to register with the government, and that a CPC win could have a “profound negative impact” on the Chinese-Canadian community.
There’s more: Several anti-Conservative party articles were posted on the popular Chinese social media website WeChat, encouraging readers to strategically vote for the Liberals. In one article posted following the election, the author states that “if the Canadian Conservative party is elected to power ... it will be a disaster for Chinese,” and praises the role of the Chinese Canadians Goto Vote Association in driving Chinese voters to the polls. The author further opines that “... preventing extreme Tories from coming to power was the single most important demand for Chinese voting,” and “the switch of two Tory seats in Richmond to the [Liberal] party is the result of the awakening of Chinese.”
Another WeChat article falsely claimed that O’Toole, if elected, would “ban WeChat.” While another compared O’Toole to Trump and called O’Toole “more radical than his predecessor Mr. Scheer,” and repeated the false claim that the Conservatives would ban WeChat. It also noted that WeChat is an “essential app for many Chinese to contact their family and friends.”
The countervailing narrative, however, suggested by other commentators is that while the swing against the Conservatives did indeed happen, it was driven not by misinformation, but rather by a legitimate concern over the party’s rhetoric.
Following Election Day, Bert Chen of Ontario, a member of the Conservative national council, told The Globe and Mail that “...he was concerned that Mr. O’Toole’s hardline comments about China had made Chinese-Canadians feel uncomfortable.” In similar comments made to iPolitics, Tung Chan, a former Vancouver City councillor observed that “a lot of the callers [to a Chinese language TV program] who were Cantonese were very concerned about the Conservative party’s approach to the relationship between Canada and China.” They said this is what caused them to vote Liberal.
Determining the cause of the vote swing against the Conservative Party is an essential question with potential national security implications, and one with obvious electoral consequences for the Conservatives themselves.
As we lack polling with the necessary visible minority cross tables to determine the impact of the Chinese Canadian vote, we can examine patterns in the election data for clues instead. Consider the following maps:
(Note: All the maps above use information available via Elections Canada.)
Now look at the concentration of self-identified ethnically Chinese residents.
(The above maps use data drawn from the 2016 census.)
It’s plain to see: the greater the concentration of ethnically Chinese voters, the bigger the swing to the Liberals.
But why did they swing?
One potential indicator of whether foreign interference played a role in the election results is examining whether there was a differential impact among Canada’s Chinese language communities.
Chinese migration into Canada occurred in waves, the earliest settlers were Cantonese-speaking individuals arriving from Southern China, encouraged to move to Canada to provide cheap labour for the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Migrants from Cantonese-speaking Southern China, particularly Hong Kong, dominated the share of Chinese migration to Canada until the beginning of the 21st Century. Beginning in the early 2000s, Mandarin-speaking mainland Chinese has become the more significant share of migrants to Canada.
As a share of Canadians whose mother tongue is a Chinese language, about equal numbers of individuals express their mother tongue as either Mandarin or Cantonese. The Mandarin and Cantonese-speaking communities in the GTA have very similar geographic distributions. However, in Vancouver, the Cantonese-speaking population is highly concentrated in East Vancouver and Richmond — and that is where the swing away from the Conservatives was most pronounced.
The following map in blue shows where Cantonese-speaking people are concentrated in the Vancouver area.
Meanwhile, the following map, in red, shows the concentration of Mandarin speakers.
This provides some evidence — imperfect, admittedly, but notable — that it was the Cantonese-speaking community, specifically, that grew wary of Conservatives, not Chinese-Canadians as a whole.
While this evidence certainly is not conclusive, and cannot be without more targeted polling and research, the concentration of Cantonese speakers in the areas showing the strongest Liberal gains supports the assertion that the older, more established Cantonese community swung against the Conservatives. In contrast, the Mandarin-speaking community does not appear to have been particularly swayed.
In my opinion this is a significant piece of evidence against the assertion that the Chinese community was targeted by successful foreign interference efforts. If foreign interference was successful, we should have seen equivalent swings against the CPC in both Mandarin- and Cantonese-speaking communities. It is possible, of course, that the Chinese government targeted both communities, and only succeeded with one, but the more mundane explanation is probably the safer bet: Cantonese speakers concerned by the Conservatives’ own bullish rhetoric on Canada-Chinese relations was the main driver of vote switching from the Conservatives to the Liberals in the GTA and GVR.
Karamveer Lalh is currently articling with an Edmonton area law firm. He is a former political staffer with the United Conservative Party of Alberta and the Conservative Party of Canada.
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