OTTAWA — Liberals and Conservatives have stumbled into a thorny debate over fears that criticism of China can bleed into bigotry, as wariness of the global superpower rises alongside incidents of anti-Asian racism in Canada.

Tory MPs asked Justin Trudeau last week to respond to reports that scientists at a Winnipeg infectious-diseases laboratory had been collaborating with Chinese military researchers.

“Communist China cannot be trusted,” Conservative deputy leader Candice Bergen said during question period in the House of Commons on May 26. “Will the prime minister commit to ending this research and this co-operation with the regime that … actually wants to hurt Canada?”

Trudeau replied by warning Conservative lawmakers against wading into intolerance.

"The rise in anti-Asian racism we have been seeing over the past number of months should be of concern to everyone," he said.

The response prompted blowback from Conservatives, who have hammered the point daily in the House of Commons. MP Michael Barrett demanded the prime minister ditch what he dubbed "woke talking points" and address security concerns. Tory MP Kenny Chiu, who was born in Hong Kong, said: "Expressing dissent is not hatred."

In a Twitter post, Chiu also said Trudeau's rebuttal resembled “the exact tactics (China's) United Front Work uses: criticism of the #CCP is a criticism of ethnic Chinese as a whole." Chiu was referring to an arm of the Chinese Communist Party that gathers intelligence on individuals and groups abroad and co-ordinates influence operations.

Criticism of the Chinese government has ramped up in recent years, spurred by accusations of suffocating democracy in Hong Kong, systematically repressing Uyghurs, a Muslim ethnic minority in Xinjiang, and cracking down on Chinese civil society.

The idea of China as international scapegoat gained renewed strength after former U.S. president Donald Trump used language about COVID-19, including “the Chinese virus” and “Wuhan flu,” that many condemned as inciting racist attacks. Last month, President Joe Biden tasked U.S. intelligence officials with boosting their efforts to probe the origins of the pandemic, including whether it could be traced to a laboratory in China.

House of Commons erupts with cries of racism after questions raised over two Chinese researchers turfed from #Winnipeg disease lab. #cdnpoli

A report released in March by several advocacy groups found a disturbing spike in racist incidents against Asian Canadians since the onset of the pandemic, largely in connection with false ideas about coronavirus spread.

Cherie Wong, executive director of Alliance Canada Hong Kong, has experienced hateful harassment first-hand.

“There would be people spitting at me to say, ‘dirty racial slur’ at me. And this has happened to my family and friends as well,” she said. “People became emboldened during this pandemic to even further this hatred and this xenophobia against Asian Canadians.”

As geopolitical tensions with Beijing heighten, anti-Asian prejudice will grow, she predicted, pointing to past discrimination against people of Japanese, German and Italian descent during the Second World War.

Wong stressed the need to confront concerns over foreign interference and domestic human rights violations by Beijing in language free of racial undertones. She also hopes to see more public awareness around the vast chasm separating China's Central Committee brass from Canadians of East Asian origin, including residents with roots in Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines who also face threats from bigotry that is ignorant of the difference.

While Trudeau has veered away from his "tolerance and diversity" response to questions about the Winnipeg lab, Conservatives have ramped up their line of attack. On Tuesday, seven Tories asked 13 questions related to national security and the Winnipeg lab.

On Wednesday, legislators passed a motion from Conservative MP Michael Chong demanding unredacted documents from the Public Health Agency of Canada in connection with two scientists who were escorted out of the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg in July 2019. It was described as a possible policy breach and administrative matter. The two scientists, Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were eventually fired in January.

Qiu had earlier been responsible for a shipment of Ebola and Henipah viruses to China's Wuhan Institute of Virology, but the public health agency has previously said the events were unrelated.

Health Minister Patty Hajdu has said in question period that the Conservatives “are playing a dangerous game,” and that the relevant documents have already been provided to the House of Commons special committee on Canada-China relations "with minor redactions for the protection of confidentiality."

Conservative calls for a harder stance on China are nothing new.

Leader Erin O'Toole has said the regime poses long-standing domestic risks, including threats from its foreign agents to Chinese Canadians and spreading anti-western propaganda through post-secondary Confucius Institute partnerships as well as Chinese media outlets.

But Lynette Ong, an associate professor in political science and China specialist at the University of Toronto, cautioned against “exaggerated” tales of shadowy operators.

“There’s nothing illegal about trying to exert influence per se, even though, because it’s a 'communist' country, people tend to look at influence from China with skeptical eyes,” she said.

“It’s foreign interference that I think we should be concerned with. But I think evidence so far for foreign interference is rather sketchy.”

Questioning China’s influence in North America does not amount to stoking anti-Asian racism, she added. “But I think people who try to criticize China often do it in such a broad brush that they are inadvertently stoking anti-Asian racism.”

Conservative MPs deployed the word “communist” 14 times on May 26, when Trudeau cited tolerance in response to security questions.

“This is a much more interdependent world, and we cannot easily draw a line in the sand trying to divide the world into two halves,” Ong said, calling outsized stress on Chinese communism “alarmist.”

Weiguo Zhang, associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto’s Mississauga campus, offered an explanation for the potential to overlook racially loaded language.

“Politicians have not focused on anti-Asian racism for years. They believe that anti-Asian racism is not a problem,” he said. Some non-racialized Canadians’ view of Chinese Canadians as a “model minority” translates, in their eyes, into a lack of prejudice — an attitude that can infiltrate new Canadians’ mindset as well, he said.

“I hear some people mention that you should use Chinese wisdom not to fight back directly but to use a kind of soft power,” Zhang said.

“It’s related to a model minority myth: by behaving well you will not be discriminated against. But you know that a model minority myth is a kind of discrimination in itself.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 3, 2021.

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