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Multiculturalism & Canada-China Relations

By Xiaobei Chen

This paper is published as part of IPD’s China Strategy Project.

Connections between domestic politics and foreign policy—more specifically between ethnic organizing and foreign policy—have for decades attracted the attention of scholars and commentators. But the nexus between foreign policy, growing ethnic diversity in populations, and the policy of multiculturalism has become an increasingly pressing topic for debate since September 11, 2001, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and China’s concurrent rapid rise. There are two distinguishable but interlinked themes in such discussions: one concerns assessing and debating the impact of ethnic minority groups on foreign policy making; the other is about how governments’ strategies for dealing with other countries affect domestic politics with respect to particular ethnic minorities.

The thrust of this article is more concerned with the second theme—the impact of foreign policy on ethnic minorities at home—informed by my research and community engagement as a public sociologist to intervene against the surge of anti-Asian racism and Sinophobia in particular. My aim is to show how, despite state multiculturalism, foreign policy making can function as an institutional conduit for reproducing systemic racism, which not only exacerbates social divisions but also prevents a form of intercultural understanding in which individuals truly see one another. There are two parts in what follows.

First, I discuss a few new factors relevant to debates about ethnic diversity and foreign policy in our present time, with particular emphasis on some Chinese Canadians’ experiences with the rise of Sinophobia and their perspectives on multiculturalism and foreign policy. Then I discuss a number of fundamental deficiencies in multiculturalism and, more generally, Canada’s approach to diversity which have a heightened significance both for ethnic minority groups’ experiences and for foreign policy making in times of international contestation, such as today’s period of deepening great power rivalry.

Ethnic Diversity and Foreign Policy in Our Present Time

While we bear in mind that there has been and always will be intense debate over ethnic minority groups and foreign policy, it is important to specify how the context of this debate has evolved in recent years. First, there has been the fact of increasing cultural diversity in Western countries as a result of their post-World War II economic need for cheap labour, skills and capital, and corresponding immigration from ex-colonies as well as other countries. Second, in the 1970s and 1980s multiculturalism had emerged as a possible policy model in these countries, partly in response to the fact of demographic diversity and as a result of political compromise.

Despite significant variations across nation-states, multiculturalism as a mode of governance generally signals the valuing of the presence of diverse ethnocultural groups, recognition of non-dominant ethnocultural and religious groups’ rights in certain areas such as language and education, and state support to and accommodation of these groups. Third, since the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a paradigm of securitization has foregrounded concerns about foreign interference and internal security threats. Some European political leaders such as Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and Nicolas Sarkozy have declared multiculturalism a failure.

While such views have not become mainstream in Canada, Canadian multiculturalism policy has nonetheless been criticized by scholars such as Jack L. Granatstein for fostering unhealthy transnational ties that are harmful to the national interests of Canada. Others such as Vic Satzewich have rebutted that view by suggesting that Canada’s multiculturalism policy may have little to do with transnational identities and connections and thus cannot be blamed for harming Canada’s national interests. Furthermore, heightened security concerns have subjected Muslims and members of Arab communities to widespread discrimination, ostracization and brutal violence because they are stigmatized as an object of suspicion.

Parallel to the treatment of Arab and Muslim communities, since the financial crisis of 2008 the Chinese diaspora has been subjected to suspicion and accusations of posing threats. While blatant attacks on multiculturalism are not often heard in Canada, Vancouver, despite being known as the most Asian city outside Asia and supposedly ‘the bastion of progressive multiculturalism’, registered more anti-Asian hate crimes reported to the police than in the top ten most populous US cities combined; it experienced a 717 percent increase in anti-Asian crimes from 2019 to 2020, despite underreporting, and was dubbed the world’s capital of anti-Asian hate crimes. In a similar vein, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, hate messages directed at Ottawa’s Moscow Tea Room, vandalism targeting the Russian community, and boycotts against Russian culture show how even in liberal multicultural societies an ethnic minority group can just as easily and quickly be demonized in times of international conflict, even though they have nothing to do with the actions of their country of origin. 

In this article, I enter the debate surrounding multiculturalism and foreign policy by sharing some preliminary research findings about Chinese Canadians’ experiences on this subject. Despite Canadian multiculturalism’s status as a pioneer of state-sanctioned diversity policy in the West, the image of it as a progressive beacon is now increasingly questioned by some ethnic minorities.

For example, in early 2020, Chinese Canadians were confronted with two impossible choices: to wear a face mask in public spaces and thus risk racist abuse, or to not wear a face mask and risk contracting the novel coronavirus. Wearing face masks is a common practice in East Asian countries for warding off viruses, mitigating allergies, or merely for privacy. Furthermore, since the outbreak in Wuhan, Chinese Canadians who had immigrated from Mainland China were acutely aware of how infectious and deadly the virus was from their families and friends in China, and how important preventive measures were in controlling the spread of the virus. They tried to persuade their neighbours and colleagues to use masks, almost all of whom declined, sometimes rudely; when they wore masks in public, many were harassed. Some harassers misunderstood wearing face masks as being sick and felt the wearers should not have left home; some equated the practice to ignorance, to being culturally un-Canadian, or to a Chinese Communist conspiracy, in many ways resembling xenophobic stigmatizing of Muslim women wearing hijabs.

Equally seriously, racial profiling of the Chinese diaspora as communist spies sabotaging national interests is happening with increasing frequency in the media, governments, and other institutions. This is especially the case for those with obvious connections with China because of their immigration status, or because their political views may not be ideologically anti-China. These characteristics mark them for questioning, scrutinizing, filtering and quiet silencing. When Canadian Senator Yuen Pau Woo spoke on a resolution in the Upper Chamber which aimed to label human rights abuses in Xinjiang as a genocide, prominent commentators and news reports distorted his speech, singled out his immigrant background and attacked him for “living in the wrong country.” Many Chinese Canadians are frustrated that they are routinely censored when they write comments online to oppose the media’s demonization of China. Chinese Canadians who protest against anti-Chinese hostility have been slandered as being masterminded by the Chinese government and thus dismissed. When some Chinese Canadians point out that the sharp rise in anti-Chinese hate crime in Canada was because of the US’ anti-China rhetoric and policy, they are often ignored even by veteran anti-racist activists and organizations, likely because they are suspected of working for China and using anti-racism to advance China’s agenda. At a recent online talk about anti-Asian racism, which was organized by the Asian Diasporas Research and Education project at Carleton University, one Chinese Canadian in the audience asked: “Aren’t my life experience and my views informed by that experience part of what makes me ‘diverse’? Isn’t that what multiculturalism is supposed to be about?”

Deficiencies in Canada’s Approach to Ethnic Diversity

The problem of rising anti-Asian racism should not be understood as a transient phenomenon. Rather, the issue concerns deficiencies present within the government’s approach to racialized minorities, including the policy of multiculturalism.

First, historically and even at present, racialized minority groups are often conditionally incorporated in objectifying ways that maximize what Canada needs from them but minimize what Canada can do to protect them. Canadian immigration policies since the 1960s have shifted their priority from hard labour to skilled labour and later to investment. Similarly, Canada’s discourse of multiculturalism and diversity emphasizes the business value of racial and ethnic minorities in the global marketplace. As Abu-Laban and Gabriel contend, the dominant conceptualization of diversity since the 1990s considers diversity, and people to whom this label is applied, as little more than “trade-enhancing commodities”.

The dehumanizing approach of valuing what is wanted from ethnic minority people over their lives is especially pronounced in times of intensified xenophobia. For example, the recruitment of international students has grown to be an important policy program for Canada. Universities rely on Asian international students’ tuition fees to mitigate cuts to public funding, but universities and governments have done little to acknowledge and support them during the surge of anti-Asian racism, even in times of growing investment in equity and inclusion initiatives. Another example is approaches to immigration that have been driven by increasingly contentious politicization of intellectual property issues and international competition.

However, as great power competition intensifies, immigrant STEM researchers, especially those from China, have suddenly found themselves suspected, blamed and punished for doing their work under the US’s China Initiative and Canada’s security risk assessment for research partnership. A professor recently commented to me: “When the relationship [between Canada and China] is good, [our work] is described as research collaboration, scholarly exchange; when the relationship is bad, it is described as spying and theft. The same work gets defined differently depending on the political context.” Governments and universities have been largely silent about the impact of this shift on researchers with Chinese connections as a group.

Second, multiculturalism policy and foreign policy share the problem of prejudices with regard to ethnic minority groups. David Carment and Yiagadeesen Samy have warned about the dangerous game of “seductive and populist” diaspora politics in foreign policy making. Part of the danger stems from ignorance about the extensive differences even within an apparently singular ethnic group. At this point, at least most politicians, commentators and policy researchers know that there are different groups of Chinese Canadians who (themselves or their ancestors) came from pre-Communist China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, or Southeast Asian countries. However, intersecting with this understanding is a racist and ideologically anti-communist perspective which labels Chinese Canadians as either Good Chinese (i.e., victims of the Chinese Communist Party) or Bad Chinese (i.e., Communist Party accomplices).

This binary conception of Chinese Canadians is a key component of the structural, ideological framework through which the Chinese diaspora is made sense of, evaluated, and reacted to accordingly. If such Canadians do not behave in ways that fit the image of victims of communism by taking an anti-China position–or better, renounce any connection with China—they are suspected of being its puppets and even accused of being communist agents who collude with the Chinese government and sabotage Western interests from within their adopted country. Mainland Chinese immigrants are the primary target of the negative profiling as communist, anti-democratic, and thus suspicious until proven innocent. This prejudice is even shared by some Chinese Canadians who were immigrants from pre-Communist China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, partly because their cultural identities have been constructed in opposition to the Communist regime and partly because of the prejudice in those places against Mainlanders, who are traditionally thought of as poor, stupid country bumpkins and/or warped by the Communist government.

The gross injustice is that most Mainland Chinese immigrants would not see themselves either as victims or as helpers of the Communist government, because they have nuanced and evolving views about China and in many instances are apolitical. Nonetheless, this racist prejudice is pervasive and structures how Chinese Canadians are seen and assessed in Canada and even in foreign policy making processes, which likely results in the disproportionate influence of those who are considered as “Good Chinese” and the marginalization of “Bad Chinese”. 

Third, most would argue that inter-ethnic understanding is helpful for making rational foreign policy. Common sense would dictate that state multiculturalism should result in better foreign policy, given that a diversity of cultures stands to enrich the country’s national discourse and international connections. Yet in reality, that is not necessarily the case. One insight from critical multiculturalism studies is that the presence of cultural diversity does not guarantee inter-ethnic understanding.

To put it in starker terms, the presence of diverse cultural practices does not mean that social divisions will not become hardened. This is because of the often stereotypical conception of culture, as well as the positioning of the white majority as the generous granter of tolerance and respect. When it comes to cultural heritage celebration encouraged in diverse communities, I have previously written about how everyday practices of acknowledging and celebrating cultural heritage tend to take the form of consuming “cultural bites”, collecting and displaying Chinese objects, and performing “Chineseness” on specific occasions, while missing the stories that Chinese Canadians could tell about locality, migrancy, creativity, hybridity and survival.

Last autumn, a polite white old lady stopped by my front garden to talk about my flowers. We introduced ourselves. When I told her that I came from China some twenty-six years ago, she responded by saying that she loved Chinese food and green tea. In fact, she had a flask of green tea in her bag right then. She visited many places in China on a couple of trips. She said how she loved Chinese people and Chinese culture, and then shook her head, “not so much the Chinese government which is awful!” There was a moment of awkwardness because I felt she expected me to echo her sentiment, but I didn’t join in the denunciation of the Chinese government.

I have my criticisms of the Chinese government and have occasionally written about them. However, in a time of war-mongering anti-China hysteria, it is important for Canadians to have a nuanced understanding of China. What crossed my mind at the time is that the majority of the population in China, a staggering 1.4 billion people, are relatively content with the huge improvement in their lives from a mere three decades ago.

In contrast to the century of humiliation under Western semi-colonization, Japanese invasion, civil wars and crushing poverty, they now have abundant food, an extensive high-speed rail system, and cheap and reliable communication technology. To them, the return of Hong Kong in 1997 to China was a decolonization moment and the hosting of the Olympic Games a symbol of China’s revitalization.

This chance conversation was not an occasion for a full, complex explanation. So I only said, “But you know, people are generally much happier in comparison to twenty, thirty years ago” and left it there. It was a friendly, even warm social exchange. However, I also feel unsettled, wondering how she would interpret my refusal to echo the simple condemnation. Elsewhere, similar refusals by myself, other Chinese Canadians, and even non-Chinese Canadians have triggered accusations of being communist spies. I relate this friendly exchange because it exemplifies what is nice about Canada, but also the terms of belonging set for ethnic minority Canadians and the challenge of achieving inter-ethnic understanding.


In this paper, I have identified a number of deficiencies in Canada’s approach to diversity that are especially closely connected to foreign policy and have a bearing on ethnic minority groups’ experiences in times of worsening international tensions.  These problems are even more important to address in today’s multipolar world, given that the pressures of great power rivalry are making the task of intercultural understanding more difficult due to pervasive (real and imagined) security concerns over foreign influence.

How can Canada’s multiculturalism policy be transformed so that it promotes genuine appreciation for diversity, understanding, collaboration, interdependence, and crucially, sociopolitical stability in an era where great power rivalry threatens to increase racism and xenophobia? To begin with, for the policy of multiculturalism to truly value cultural minority groups and to inform foreign policy in helpful ways, we need to see that they are more than the labour, research skills and knowledge, social and financial capital, and trade assets that Canada may covet. We should see their humanity and care about their lives that are vulnerable to racist hostility in times of international confrontations.

Equally importantly, we should develop critical understandings of how current state multiculturalism and foreign policy not only fail to eliminate racism, but can also become conduits for discourses of prejudice to be perpetuated. Thirdly, in order for foreign policy to benefit more completely from our great span of ethnic diversity, we ought to avoid the trap of turning inter-ethnic recognition into yet another occasion for affirming our own virtues. We should practice an ethics of recognition that does not assume that we already know the Other, but rather which encourages us to understand the Other on their terms.

Xiaobei Chen (@xiaobeic) is a Professor of Sociology at Carleton University in Ottawa.

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor