Olivia Chow with her bicycle
Photo: Pooyan Tabatabaei; licensed under 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The case for progressive diasporic organizing in Olivia Chow’s Toronto

Hong Kong diaspora organizing has never been about 'single issues'

On the night of June 26th, Olivia Chow was elected mayor of Toronto, the first non-white mayor to ever win that office in 189 years. Her win was significant in many ways. It signaled a much needed pivot from years of conservative, pro-business politics in the city that has exacerbated an already dire affordability crisis and left entire communities precarious. But Chow’s win also represents the apogee of a particular brand of progressive and left diaspora politics that has in recent years seemed to recede.

Much of the coverage in Hong Kong media of Chow’s victory has been narrowly focused on her relatively mainstream statements opposing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), avoiding an analysis of her substantive social-democratic politics. Chow, a seasoned social activist, is a member of a wave of left and progressive activists from Toronto’s Chinese diaspora who has been active since the 70s and 80s with activism around violence against women, greater funding for immigrant and refugee services, and pushing back against Toronto’s powerful police unions—all causes that mainstream media has been quick to ignore. But Chow’s win provides an opening for the new Hong Kong and Chinese diaspora to move beyond single-issue anti-CCP activism and build the case for a progressive, internationalist diaspora politics based on cross-border and anti-capitalist solidarity.

Old diasporas

The history of the Chinese diaspora in Canada cannot be told without a history of Canada’s racist immigration laws. Early Chinese immigrants to Canada were railroad workers who were excluded from status by overtly racist laws like the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act and Order-In-Council PC 1930-2115, which extended a ban on “any immigrant of any Asiatic race” with limited exceptions. Even prior to the repeal of exclusionary immigration laws in the 60s, there was mass civil disobedience against them, most notably through “paper relatives”—the trade and forgery of immigration documents among Chinese migrants so as to circumvent racist prohibitions. 

By 1967, a combination of anti-colonial resistance overseas and domestic anti-racist movements forced the Canadian government to dismantle explicit racism in its immigration policies. Despite xenophobic backlash, anti-racist advocates succeeded in lobbying for the 1960 Chinese Adjustment Statement Program—a status regularization program which granted status to some 12,000 Chinese Canadians. This opened the door for the first major wave of immigrants of color in the 20th century, including a substantial number of Hong Kong immigrants of which Olivia Chow and her family were a part. More immigrants from Hong Kong would arrive in Canada throughout the 1980s and especially after the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4th, 1989.

Although the Hong Kong diaspora at the time was heterogeneous, many were explicitly anti-communist, in part as a response to the Cultural Revolution and the 1967 Leftist Riots. Still, there emerged a strong tradition of social democratic thought and political action. Olivia Chow’s mayoral victory is a political high water mark of a small but significant cohort of Chinese Canadian social democrats–many with ties to Hong Kong and Chinese democracy movements–who cut their teeth in the 1980s.

This social democratic wave has primarily been led by women. Toronto alone has seen the emergence of important figures such as Olivia Chow, labor activist and scholar Winnie Ng, former executive director of Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care Amy Go, Chinese Head Tax redress lawyer turned Federal Court Justice Avvy Go, and Chinese Canadian Historian Dora Nipp, among others. Their extensive legacy can be seen in myriad ways, from important community institutions such Yee Hong and the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic, to labor organizations like the Asian Canadian Labour Alliance and important social reform campaigns such as the short-lived Ontario Employee Wage Protection Program and the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Redress Campaign. 

Chow’s generation of diaspora activists were moved by their histories of migration and their experience of economic hardship, as Chow made clear in her victory speech. The story she told was not one about bootstrapping, hard-working immigrants or model minorities-themes so often featured by liberal media. Instead, the story Chow told was one of an economic system that, while harsh and profoundly unequal, still held the possibility of social mobility for the immigrant working class. These conditions no longer exist in today’s Toronto, which has become one of the most unaffordable cities in the world. Chow’s speech went on to lament how the city had been “weakened by inequality” and acknowledged that it had been “left behind by a decade of neglect.” Indeed, many of her policy proposals follow a social democratic program: directly building public housing, taxing speculators and luxury home owners, and reversing funding cuts to transit and public libraries. 

Yet while Chow’s speech and its juxtaposition of cost-of-living past and present could just as easily have resonated with the people of Hong Kong, her city of birth and one long tormented by both neoliberal inequality and heavy policing, the material and economic aspects of her political program are often left out of mainstream accounts of diaspora politics. Instead, diaspora politics have in recent years been reduced to single-issue activism against authoritarian states like the PRC. But, as recent tragedies like the poverty and death of Hong Kong immigrant Fion Ho in the United Kingdom show, the new Hong Kong diaspora must center economic inequality and anti-capitalist resistance in their adopted homes, in addition to anti-authoritarian politics.

New diasporas

The post-2019 wave of Hong Kong immigrants to Canada will help form a new generation of diaspora, highly politicized not only by the anti-extradition bill movement (anti-ELAB) and subsequent national security law (NSL) crackdown, but their struggles and uneven experiences as new immigrants and refugees attempting to secure a livelihood in the settler-colonial state known as Canada. Though this generation’s struggles will have unique features, there is much to learn from how the older generation of diasporic social democrats simultaneously opposed racism in the settler state of Canada, opposed authoritarianism in China, and engaged in transnational labor activism. Chow herself has long maintained strong links with Hong Kong labor and pro-democracy movements, most recently inviting the now-imprisoned former General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), Lee Cheuk-Yan to speak at Toronto Metropolitan University.

A major challenge facing the “new” diaspora in Canada is the era of saber-rattling about a “new Cold War” and Chinese foreign interference in Canada. Ethnically Chinese politicians from across the political spectrum in Canada have been subject to attacks and have had their loyalties questioned based on various degrees of connection with Chinese government officials. Even Chow has been subject to attempts to vilify her in the media during her electoral campaign for speaking with the Council of Newcomer Organizations—a Chinese Canadian umbrella organization with close links to the PRC government.

Yet a robust movement opposing the CCP requires a progressive political analysis, especially when mounted from overseas. It needs organization and coordination, but perhaps even more importantly, it requires internationalist solidarity and thoughtful coalition-building. In this respect, the “new” Hong Kong diaspora in Canada can draw many lessons from the experience of the “old” diaspora. It can choose its allies wisely, articulating a politics of common liberation, rather than tolerating those who pledge support to the cause of democracy in Hong Kong while preaching Sinophobia and xenophobia against those from mainland China. There is a long history of progressive organizing in Hong Kong diaspora communities in Toronto and elsewhere, including the story of people like Olivia Chow, which can form a foundation on which to build a more radical movement from the grassroots.

Fortunately, there are many established and already existing leftist political movements and organizations in anti-poverty, migrant justice, climate justice, anti-racism, housing justice, and labor rights, among others. Plugging into and forming relationships with these movements is essential for this new generation of Hong Kong diaspora activists—and a point of distinction against right-wing and even much of liberal diasporic politics. The spirit of the grassroots anti-police politics that emerged in the 2019 anti-ELAB movement, which radically rethought what keeps us collectively safe, can be carried forward today, even across oceans and borders. We only have to witness the crackdowns on racial justice protests and the unhoused in our adopted homes in Canada and North America more broadly to understand that this violence is connected to the same violence that we condemned in the Hong Kong police. As racialized immigrant settlers in the settler state known as Canada, part of this connection must be the realization that progressive causes—whether they be affordable housing, divesting from police and investing in community supports, Indigenous liberation, or status for all—are our causes too.

Toward a left diaspora politics

Ultimately, the electoral victory of Chow should be seen more as an opportunity, rather than as a blueprint. We know that a narrow focus on electoral politics, by putting political hopes in individual candidates and siphoning energy towards vote pandering, can ultimately be demobilizing for grassroots organizing. The individualized nature of electoral politics makes it easy for corporate and state co-optation of political representatives that is unaccountable and ultimately harmful. Chow herself, for all her record of progressive politics, is a shrewd political actor. Just one day after her historic win, Chow immediately struck a conciliatory tone with landlords looking to build up smaller homes for rent: “I want to unleash the power of the homeowner and say to them, ‘go build it,’ because we need housing right here now.” In her first week in office, Chow has been criticized for her support of private real estate developers, using unhoused African asylum seekers as political bargaining chips, and not acting to stop shelter hotel evictions. Strong and militant organizing will be needed to keep Chow on track to realize the progressive policies she said she would enact.

Hongkongers know all too well the value of having a democratic right to elect political representatives. We must safeguard the democratic gains won by movements in the electoral sphere, especially against unaccountable leaders and capitalists who seek to use government for their own profits. But we must also recognize that under bourgeois democracy, elections will always be pitted against the interests of workers and marginalized peoples in the last instance. Thus, we must understand electoral politics as just one terrain among many in the struggle to contest ruling class power and to consolidate social movements around democratic political programs that are fundamentally incompatible with the current system.

Ultimately, democracy is not just (or even primarily) about the election of political leaders. What is needed is radical democratic practice and self-determination at all levels of society, not only in civil and political spheres, but also in the economic sphere. Political democracy and economic democracy are inherently intertwined, and only artificially separated in bourgeois democratic politics. This holds true whether one is organizing in Toronto or in Hong Kong. It is not a coincidence, for instance, that the first major set of organized protests in the post-NSL era were conducted by South Asian food delivery drivers contesting lowered wages and unfair cancellation fees.

Thus, an analysis of Chow’s politics and her connection to a Hong Konger diasporic legacy of progressive social democracy in Canada highlights the importance of grounding diaspora politics in leftist politics. Such a movement builds power through community organizing and activism, connecting in solidarity with other social movements. It also opens up ground for activists in the Hong Kong diaspora to critically think about ideological differences and develop political positions, rather than default to “non-ideological” positions or “single-issue” attitudes toward anti-CCP activism. Chow’s election presents us all with an opportunity to reflect and to connect the lessons of the Old Diaspora with the urgent struggles of the New.