Ontario middle school teacher Alanna King received a copy of the Epoch Times in April last year, delivered by Canada Post to her doorstep. The words “How the Chinese Communist Party endangered the world” were written in red and white on the front page of the April 2020 “special” issue, distributed on April 13.
An editorial within called for the public to refer to COVID-19 as the Chinese Communist Party virus or “CCP virus” and questioned whether the virus was “leaked” from a Chinese state-run lab. The scientific consensus is that the virus originated naturally in bats near Wuhan, China.
“The CCP virus [name] reminds the people of the world that the source of the virus is itself evil,” the Epoch Times wrote in the editorial.
“It took me about 24 hours of this festering anger before I was like, ‘OK, what am I going to do about this?’” King said.
She started an online petition asking the federal government to ban its delivery in Canada based on hate speech and misinformation.
The Epoch Times is a newspaper founded in 2000 by Chinese Americans in the U.S. On its website, the publication describes itself as “the fastest-growing independent news media in America.”
Following the sample issue King received in April 2020, Canada Post distributed another sample issue to Canadians in January 2021.
Since King started it last April, the petition has received nearly 10,400 signatures.
“I only had like 100 signatures until [January 2021],” King said. “Then it went viral.”
The petition took off earlier this year after two Canada Post workers in Saskatchewan refused to deliver the newspaper, saying they objected to using the term “CCP virus.” Both workers were suspended without pay for three days in January.
One of the workers, Linying Su, who was born in China, told the CBC she feared distributing the paper would stoke discrimination against Asian Canadians.
Amid rising hate crimes against Asian Canadians during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of those who spoke to The Pigeon expressed concerns that the newspaper’s content could stoke further racism against Asian communities by spreading misinformation about COVID-19.
What is the Epoch Times?
While some Canadians say they are concerned the newspaper’s content could stoke xenophobia, the Epoch Times wrote in a Jan. 2021 statement that recent media coverage purposely left out the fact that Asian immigrants founded the newspaper.
“There is no way we would publish content that is anti-Asian,” the statement said.
The paper’s founder, John Tang, was a practitioner of the religious group Falun Gong. In July 1999, the CCP declared the group a “heretical organization,” representing a “threat to social and political stability” in the country. The CCP currently bans the Epoch Times in mainland China and violently persecutes Falun Gong’s members.
According to a document published by Amnesty International in 2000, tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners had been arbitrarily detained, tortured, or badly treated in prison. In 2019, a panel of experts found China was killing and harvesting organs from practitioners of the religion.
Since its founding, the Epoch Times has received criticism for spreading misinformation and promoting rhetoric often criticized for being anti-Asian—such as former US President Donald Trump calling COVID-19 the “China virus”—in its quest to expose the CCP’s human rights abuses.
In 2020, the New York Times called the Epoch Times “a global scale misinformation machine.” Referencing the paper’s heavily pro-Donald Trump stance, The Atlantic said it was “MAGA-land’s favourite newspaper.”
The Epoch Times maintains it is non-partisan and anti-CCP, not anti-Chinese.
“The Epoch Times is an independent, non-partisan media outlet that reports honestly and objectively and has won multiple journalism awards,” the paper wrote in the Jan. 2021 statement posted on its website.
The statement references the media bias rating website AllSides, which rates the newspaper as right-leaning but close to the centre. However, another site, Media Bias Fact Check, rates it as a right-wing and a “questionable source.”
The Pigeon contacted both the Epoch Times and the Canadian publisher of Epoch Times, Cindy Gu, for a response but did not receive a reply before publication.
In April 2020, Canada’s Ministry of Public Services and Procurement decided the paper’s content doesn’t fall under the Criminal Code definition of hate speech. Still, some critics who spoke to The Pigeon believe the Epoch Times’ anti-CCP content and theories about COVID-19 may stoke existing xenophobia in Canada.
Does the Epoch Times promote anti-Asian hate?
Derek Richmond, one of the vice-presidents of the Canada Union of Postal Workers’ Scarborough, Ont. branch, said several postal workers approached him last year and voiced their concerns about the use of the term “CCP virus.”
“You get people who sit back, and they believe that [the CCP manufactured the virus] and then they see an Asian carrier coming up to their house and knocking on their door,” Richmond said.
Following the controversy surrounding the first sample issue last year, Richmond made a request in April 2020 to Anita Anand, the Minister of Public Services and Procurement, to stop distributing the newspaper on the grounds of hate speech.
However, according to the ministry, Richmond’s request was denied since it didn’t meet the Criminal Code definition of hate speech, according to the ministry. The minister’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
Although Anand maintained the newspaper wasn’t spreading hate speech, a Maclean’s newsletter sent to subscribers on March 23, 2021, reported she later wrote to Canada Post.
Earlier this year, the federal government database that discloses the titles and dates of briefing notes published a Dec. 2020 note meant for Anand.
Maclean’s alleges it requested the full briefing note but that the note’s contents were entirely redacted. A source within the Liberal party reportedly gave Maclean’s an undated letter sent this year from Anand to Canada Post.
In the letter, Anand reportedly encouraged the postal service to “strengthen its processes,” preventing the delivery of hateful mail and “improve Canadians’ ability to choose what they receive in the mail.”
She also allegedly wrote that although Canada Post respects Charter rights of free communication, the postal service “should not be used as a means to disseminate racist, hateful rhetoric.” The source told Maclean’s the letter was at least partly about the Epoch Times.
Richmond said he doesn’t think the newspaper’s content is racist, but he believes “some of their covers and their articles can lead to xenophobia.”
How has COVID-19 impacted anti-Asian racism?
Over 980 pandemic-related incidents of racism against Asian Canadians have been reported on Fight COVID Racism, a platform tracking acts of hate during the pandemic.
Slurs, threats, swearing, spitting, targeted coughing, and physical violence make up many incidents. Fight COVID Racism data from Sept. 2020 reported that 83 per cent of incidents targeted East Asians—people from China, Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Mongolia. Sixty per cent of incidents targeted women.
One of the groups contributing to Fight COVID Racism, the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice’s Toronto chapter, wrote in a statement that it is concerned by these trends.
“These disturbing data […] illustrate the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic remains deeply racialized,” wrote Justin Kong, the group’s executive director.
Xiaoping Li, a sociology professor at Okanagan College’s Kelowna, B.C. campus, studies media serving the Chinese Canadian diaspora. In an email to The Pigeon, she said while the increase in racist incidents is concerning, it’s important not to mistake the CCP as representative of all Chinese people.
Li explained being critical of the CCP is sometimes viewed as being anti-Chinese in some Chinese-Canadian diaspora communities.
“I am aware that even in Canada if a person is critical of the CCP or problems in China, [being anti-CCP] can be viewed as being unpatriotic or betraying the Chinese ancestors,” she said.
“It is of great necessity to distinguish the Chinese government and the CCP from the Chinese people and China.”
She said she agrees with Anand that the newspaper’s CCP content isn’t hate speech but that it has become partisan by encouraging conspiracy theories and aligning itself with Trump.
“If we look at Canada’s Criminal Code, the content of the Epoch Times is not hate speech. It [targets] the CCP rather than people of Chinese descent,” Li said.
“Nonetheless, promoting the idea that [COVID] was made in a lab in Wuhan can have consequences.”
King said that despite Anand’s decision, she’s still concerned for Asian postal workers and other members of Asian communities.
“They feel unsafe,” she said. “That’s a human rights issue.”
Why can’t Canada Post refuse to deliver the Epoch Times?
In a May 2020 statement from Canada Post to CBC, Canada Post said it’s obligated to deliver all mail, including from the Epoch Times, as long as it is properly addressed, paid for, and not deemed to be non-mailable.
Currently, the non-mailable matter regulations in the Canada Post Corporation Act don’t specifically name materials containing controversial speech, hate speech, conspiracy theories, or any other type of written content as non-mailable matter.
The Act does name uncovered sexually explicit material, ammunition, and “items that emit offensive odours” as non-mailable.
However, the Act says “any item transmitted by post in contravention of an Act or a regulation of Canada” is non-mailable. Since the ministry in charge of Canada Post decided the paper’s content is not hated speech, its distribution cannot be stopped using these criteria.
Misinformation, or publishing false news, isn’t illegal in Canada as of 1992. A 1992 Supreme Court decision struck down a Criminal Code provision that banned false news because it violated Charter-protected freedom of expression.
“If society has reached a consensus on banning all conspiracy theories, that would be a strong reason for Canada Post to stop circulating the Epoch Times,” Li said.
Still, the Epoch Times denies publishing misinformation.
“[S]ome articles have accused us of publishing misinformation, but none of them have pointed out any factual problems in our reporting. No example of a single sentence or paragraph is offered. They simply throw negative labels at us,” the newspaper wrote in its Jan. 2021 statement.
Richmond said he doesn’t believe the paper should be banned in Canada but that those in power should take steps to protect members of Chinese communities and Canada Post carriers from xenophobia caused by conspiracy theories about COVID-19.
“We feel it should be covered, and there should be some provisions in place for customers who don’t want this material,” he said.
He said the current regulations are letting down Asian postal workers and Asian Canadians subjected to racist attacks during the pandemic.
“I feel it’s very irresponsible, and [Canada Post] failed to protect the Asian carriers from promoting xenophobia,” Richmond said.