Labour and the new Chinese working class

Dundas_Street_West_at_Huron_Street_Toronto_2010By Justin Kong

With the devastating electoral defeat of the New Democratic Party last month in the 2015 Federal Elections, it’s clear that the Canadian left must adjust their strategy. The new strategy needs to support the development of a progressive, grassroots immigrant power to counter the presence of more conservative and moderate elements within these communities.

In the Chinese diaspora, while there are a number of strong progressive leaders at various levels of government and in the community at large, the presence of a mobilized, grassroots Chinese immigrant left has yet to be felt in recent years.

This lies partly in the fact that one group has long been unengaged: the Chinese immigrant working class.

New wave of Chinese immigrants, new attitudes towards labour

Contrary to the common trope of the rich Chinese investor immigrant, one merely has to look around the many Chinese ethnic neighbourhoods in Toronto and Vancouver to see that there are actually tremendous populations of workers labouring in the ethnic economy. These workers are often engaged in the food and services industry in precarious conditions and without the full protection of employment laws and standards.

This population has long been here and has remained relatively unengaged by the mainstream left and organized labour. A small group find themselves in the progressive political spaces of community labour organizations such as the Workers Action Centre in Toronto.

What has changed in recent years, however, is the composition of this Chinese working class and the increasing maturity of the Chinese diaspora in Canada. These two conditions have important ramifications for the possibility of a progressive Chinese element and the Canadian left at large.

In the past two decades the flow of Chinese immigrants, which had previously been largely dominated by those from Hong Kong and Taiwan, has shifted to a flow that is increasingly dominated by those from mainland China.

Given that immigrants from Hong Kong and Taiwan have likely been here for a longer period of time it is more likely that they have attained more upward mobility with less ‘working class’ members. More importantly these groups have radically different pre-migration attitudes towards the left and labour politics than the new wave from China.

In Hong Kong, family histories of communist persecution, the infamous 1967 riots which linked trade unionism with social instability and communist insurgency, combine to stifle the possibility of broad labour politics amongst the Hong Kong populace. It should be no surprise then that Canadian labour politics will find it difficult to engage this group.

On the other hand, the new Chinese immigrant working class is largely composed of skilled professionals from mainland China who grew up in very different conditions. Growing up and living in Mainland China means this group has at the very least a basic understanding of concepts of class, capitalism and exploitation — important preconditions to any progressive and labour politics.

With the economic rise of China and the proliferation of consumer culture, leftist politics may have had little salience amongst this population when they were still living in China.

After immigrating the situation becomes different. Labouring in the deskilling, dehumanizing and precarious Canadian economy reignites in the Chinese worker the earlier internalizations of working class consciousness and left politics.

Due to these factors, this new Chinese working class, more than any previous Chinese wave, has the potential to constitute a progressive, left element within the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

Bridging the ethnic and the mainstream

As waves upon waves of Chinese immigrants have settled in Canada, the Chinese diaspora as a whole has become increasingly mature. This maturity manifests in an increasing number of potential progressive political leaders who are able to connect the mainstream with the ethnic.

These two developments together represent the fertile conditions for the development of a left grassroots counter presence in the Chinese community. In the absence of sustained engagement, this new Chinese working class may remain inactive in formal politics and quite possibly bolster the ranks of the political right and moderates.

Chinese churches, for example, appear to be making in-roads with this new Chinese working class. Grounded in the ethnic community through their ‘service’, Chinese churches in Toronto have initiated sermons and fellowship groups catered specifically to Chinese restaurant workers. For the left, such a development is illustrative of the extensive vacuum that exists.

If we look throughout Canada’s history we will see that incorporating immigrant workers has been central to the power of organized labour and the Canadian left. However, that this incorporation has often excluded immigrant workers who are not white has always been an overarching, strategic misstep.

In order for the Canadian left to establish a foothold in immigrant communities for electoral struggles or otherwise, the establishment of grassroots strength within these communities is essential. To do this the immigrant working classes and political leadership of immigrant communities must be mobilized and connected with the mainstream left.

By supporting and building the emerging immigrant left is to reverse the decades of decline of the Canadian left. The conditions for an immigrant left is ripe in the Chinese community and it may likely be the case in other immigrant communities as well. All that remains for us to do is to come together and figure out how we can make it a reality — and that, of course, is the hard part.

This article originally appeared on NewCanadianMedia.ca and is republished with permission.

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