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Canada should reflect on its struggle with racism

By Yuezhi Zhao | China Daily Global | Updated: 2021-07-29 09:09
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Photo taken on June 6, 2021 a staked child's dress is seen on the side of Hwy 5, placed there to represent an ongoing genocide against First Nations people in Canada, near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, where the remains of 215 children were discovered buried near the facility, in Kamloops. [Photo/Agencies]

More than halfway through the year, 2021 has truly provoked me to think about history and what it means to be a Chinese Canadian, especially the settler-colonial nature of the Canadian state and the moral high ground that Canadian politicians have assumed in critiquing the Chinese state.

It is said that history is the best schoolbook. Perhaps it is in that context that we can appreciate the Communist Party of China's ongoing campaign to study Party history as the centerpiece of its activities celebrating the 100th anniversary of the CPC's founding.

The CPC, despite all the trials and tribulations, even grave mistakes, is in a position to tell the proud history of national liberation, a history in which the Chinese nation overthrew the "three mountains" of imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.

On the Canadian side, however, history has brought up disturbing skeletons in 2021, so much so that Canadian flags were flying at half-staff on Canada Day.

Surely enough, mainstream Canadian society has expressed disbelief and shock at the mistreatment of aboriginal children in the residential school system.

However, we must not forget two crucial points: First, the genocide of the aboriginal population has been at the very core of the founding of Canada as a settler-colonial state from the very beginning; second, that genocidal history has been a lived reality for generations of Canada's First Nations population, as its indigenous people are known.

What must be brought into sharp focus is not just Canada's residential school system and its genocidal crimes but the entire colonial project of the West, with its crimes against humanity all over the world for more than 500 years.

While the oppressive forms that colonialism has taken might have been different-from the genocide of the aboriginal populations in the Americas to the enslavement of Africans, and the imposition of the Opium Wars against the Chinese-the logic has always been the same: the exploitation of the world's lands, peoples of color and resources for imperial gain and relentless capitalistic accumulation, the cultivation of whiteness as a dominating ideology, and the suppression of the world's diverse cultural systems in favor of the monoculture of Christianity.

Even today, after centuries of decolonization struggles by the world's oppressed peoples and after an interstate system has long been established in the aftermath of two bloody wars in the first half of the 20th century, white supremacy and colonial mentality are still deeply ingrained in mainstream Western culture.

What must be emphasized is this: Racism is not just a subjective state of mind, but a deeply ingrained institution and an exploitative power structure through which the privileged social, economic and cultural positions of the colonial settlers and their descendants are reproduced.

However, this is not to say that all white people are by definition racist. In the case of the Canadian residential school system, as revealed by the fate of "The Bryce Report "more than a century ago, it was Peter Henderson Bryce, a nonindigenous public health physician and social reformer, who had long documented the "national crime" in the residential school system.

That Bryce's voice was marginalized and not heeded was a powerful indictment of the systematic nature of institutionalized racism and mainstream Canadian society's genocidal treatment of the First Nations.

Today, despite the sustained struggles of racial minorities, racism remains a major problem in Canadian society. Among other developments, the Canadian state's dependence on the United States in its foreign policies toward China and the Canadian establishment's self-righteous position vis-a-vis China on human rights issues have fueled anti-Asian hatred. This has been verified by increased incidents of racially motivated attacks against Asian Canadians.

China is not a colonial nation; nor is it a settler state. On the contrary, as a nation that was once subjugated by imperialism and colonialism, the Chinese people have powerful collective memories of the crimes of imperialism and colonialism.

Furthermore, the idea that one should "not do to others what you do not want done to yourself" is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture. As China gains more economic power and assumes a greater role in global affairs, Western politicians and pundits of all academic stripes have been highly consistent in claiming that China will emerge as a "traditional imperial hegemon".

In my view, that deterministic view reflects more the deeply entrenched paradigm of Western imperialism than a sound prediction of China's developmental path.

Similarly, while the Chinese nation is constituted of multiple ethnicities, the Chinese mode of transcultural national integration has not been forged around the colonial mode of assimilation.

Contrary to the genocidal decline of the aboriginal population in North America over the past 500 years, minority populations such as Tibetans and Uygurs have grown significantly, and that has especially been the case since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

When Canadian politicians, media outlets and scholars attack China for alleged human rights abuses, especially when they accuse China of genocidal treatment of the Uygurs in the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region, we are witnessing the same unreflective application to China of a home-based paradigm based on the genocidal assimilation of aboriginal people.

Apart from sustaining its dependency status on the US in its foreign policy, such an anti-China discourse also contributes to racism in Canadian society. It is high time that Canada focuses on its own unfinished struggle against racism and overcomes its settler-colonialist legacy.

The author is a professor and Canada Research Chair in political economy of global communication at the School of Communication of Simon Fraser University in British Columbia.

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