Xi Jinping, the President of China, makes Donald Trump sound like a liberal poseur. Cracking down on Muslims? Check. Torturing political enemies? Check. Mass surveillance, violation of reproductive rights, military aggression? Check, check, check.

When such actions are carried out by Western nations, the condemnation from Western progressives is swift. Canada is routinely “called out” on its colonial history, institutional discrimination and entrenched racial inequalities — and rightly so.

Yet the response to China’s actions from some on the Canadian left is strangely muted, even when China, the government, directly threatens the interests of Canadians and First Nations here at home.

Han Jun, a Vice-Minister at China’s Central Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, visited Ottawa in January with a stark message for Canadian officials: China is open to a new bilateral trade deal, but only if we lift restrictions on the purchase of Canadian companies by China’s state-owned energy behemoths.

Oh, and build a pipeline to the West Coast.

Over the last 10 years, Chinese energy executives have made no secret of the government’s strategy for Canadian oil: buy extraction companies like Nexen, fund pipelines like Enbridge Northern Gateway, then sail oil tankers to state-owned heavy oil refineries in China.

But for Vice-Minister Han to express this as a precondition of signing a trade deal signals a shift in tactics. By laying out China’s position before negotiations can begin, Han is putting unusual public pressure on the Canadian government.

That’s why Dogwood launched the “Stand Up to China” petition: to push back on the Vice-Minister’s demands, and to counter the spin campaign by Liberal-connected corporate think tanks here in Canada, supporting a grossly unequal trade deal with China.

Our petition is specifically directed at the Prime Minister of Canada, with reference to the “Chinese government” — not Chinese people, “the Chinese” or, goodness knows, the Chinese diaspora in Canada. The day it launched we also put out an online video, which deliberately avoids showing any Asian-looking people at all, save for President Xi Jinping.

With more than 100,000 video views and 25,000 signatures, the petition has clearly struck a nerve in B.C. and Beijing. It has also prompted feedback from roughly half a dozen friends and acquaintances, concerned that the campaign taps into and may even encourage anti-Asian racism.

Canada and B.C. in particular has a dark history of discrimination against Asians and South Asians. As a Japanese-Canadian I take this conversation very seriously, because my family has lived this reality since arriving in Vancouver in 1900. The effects of the Japanese Internment still reverberate two generations later.

During World War Two, Japanese-Canadian people were found in internal RCMP memos to pose no threat to Canada. My grandparents were born here, grew up speaking English, and fully identified as Canadian. But the reality is that the Empire of Japan, especially after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, did pose a clear danger to Canada and its allies.

The reason my grandparents lost their liberty for four years was because powerful businessmen and their allies in B.C. politics and media deliberately blurred those lines between Japan and Japanese-Canadian people to drum up racial fear in B.C. Why? To take their land and fishing fleets.

That’s why it’s so important to draw clear distinctions between Chinese people and the country of China. Xenophobia and racism target the powerless. Our aim as campaigners is to target the powerful, both in Canada and in the Chinese government.

Are there racist people on Dogwood’s mailing lists and social media accounts? Yes, and a trash bag full of crazy emails would suggest they were around long before we launched the China petition. But until someone puts it in writing, we have no way to screen for bigotry. (When hate speech does pop up on our social media feeds, our moderators delete the comments and ban the users, as quickly as we are able.)

The vast majority are signing this petition because they have legitimate concerns. A recent Nanos poll found that 76 per cent of Canadians have a negative impression of the Government of China, and that’s for good reason.

From Tibet to the Tiananmen massacre, China’s post-war communist history is stained with blood. The people of China and their neighbours have so far been the primary victims. Now a new chapter is opening as President Xi hunts dissidents and projects his military power far beyond China’s borders.

Dogwood will continue to criticize the Chinese government, especially where its actions threaten local decision-making or First Nations’ rights and title. China’s demand for a West Coast pipeline cannot go unchallenged. The question is whether we can achieve the same goals using different language or imagery. I am especially keen to hear from Chinese-Canadians or other Asian folks who had a negative reaction to our “Stand Up to China” petition.

If you have concrete suggestions for how to improve the campaign, I welcome your contributions either in the comments below or by email: dogwood@dogwoodbc.ca Thanks for your participation in this important conversation.