Controversial Chinese-language attack ads renew focus on targeted political campaigning

Controversial Chinese-language attack ads renew focus on targeted political campaigning

A recent set of controversial Chinese-language political attack ads is raising questions about whether political campaigns that target an ethnic community do more harm than good.

The ads, which were published in the Ming Pao and Sing Tao Daily newspapers and ran on Chinese-language radio, were directed at NDP Richmond South Centre candidate and current city councillor Chak Au.

In translation, part of the ad — paid for by a group called Richmond Community Concerns — reads: "You should know that NDP advocates for drug injection sites, gender-neutral washrooms, encourages sex education to young children and supports same sex marriage."

The newspapers have large circulations and are widely read by Chinese-Canadians and the broader Chinese community.

It is not clear who Richmond Community Concerns is, whether it is backed by a political party or has a specific community affiliation.

The group was not registered with Elections BC at the time the ads were published.

An 'embarassment'

Dora Ng, a Chinese-Canadian trans and queer rights advocate, says the ads are not only personally hurtful and an "embarrassment," but "throw the Chinese-Canadian community under the bus."

While the ads might have limited political sway, Ng said, the damage is in how it reinforces stereotypes of who Chinese-Canadians are.

It also hurts how Chinese-Canadians are perceived by outsiders.

"It's like oh my God, not this again. We know how this will make the Chinese community look," Ng said.

Listen to Dora Ng's full interview on CBC's The Early Edition:

A time-honoured political tradition

Political campaigning focused on ethnic groups has long been a campaign tool, although not without controversy.

Leaked documents in 2013 revealed how senior officials in B.C.'s Liberal party planned certain strategies to win "ethnic votes" in the provincial election.

During the last federal election, Conservative party ads in B.C. specifically addressed the South Asian and Chinese-Canadian communities claiming candidate Justin Trudeau backed pot sales and brothels.

Daniel Ahadi, a professor in Simon Fraser University's School of Communication who studies ethnicity and media, says the problem with political campaigning targeting certain communities is it assumes people of the same cultural background have the same values and can be persuaded to vote in the same way.

"Tokenism is always a problem [with Canadian multicultural policy]," he explained.

"You think of multiculturalism as a kind of representation of ethnic identity at a superficial level. We have "ethnic" food, "ethnic" festivals and we have people clustered together as the "ethnic" vote."

But such thinking collapses the actual complexity of the community's values and often ends up sounding tone-deaf or one-sided, he said.

Distracts from real issues

It can be especially problematic when the ads play up certain perceived and real identity tensions between newcomers and more established Canadians rather than focus on issue-driven politics.

"This is more oil added to the narrative that Chinese-Canadians are conservative and don't want to take on Canadian values," Ng said.

Hanson Lau, a former broadcaster at a Chinese-language radio station in Richmond, said the the ads — which he called skewed — put the focus on the wrong things.

"It's a personal attack ad. The real issue in Richmond right now is the bridge! It has nothing to do with the lesbian or gay community ... There's no issue there. We have laws in Canada that are all passed already," he said.

Though he's not sure whether the ads will have any effect, he says 'it's a very bad atmosphere for the election."

Not responsible for an entire community

But some question why these attack ads are any different from all the other attack ads launched by political parties.

Tung Chan, a former Vancouver city councillor and former CEO of immigration agency S.U.C.C.E.S.S., said while he didn't agree with the ads, he didn't feel responsible for speaking out against them as a Chinese-Canadian.

"I wouldn't hold it against them. They're entitled to their views. If they want to use that to get votes, that's their prerogative, I guess," he said.

"I've come to a place where I do not necessarily feel that I have to be responsible for things that other people of my same cultural background are doing."

But Chan also understands while he might personally feel that way, he might not escape being lumped into such a group.

"Whether the society as large continues to see me as part of that community is the toughest question. My skin colour, my accent, my last name — and my first name — and I cannot escape that."

His solution?

Getting out and talking to different people.

"We don't know each other as a larger community. [We need] to be mindful what other communities are saying — particularly in the election time."