Hostage diplomacy and foreign interference: Why Canada must stand up to China now

By Downtown Legal Services and International Human Rights Program

*This op-ed is published as part of a DLS campaign to reunite separated Uyghur-Canadian families. For more information, please visit the campaign website.

**This piece has been published by DLS and the IHRP to protect the identity of the authors.

Canada should offer refuge to victims of Chinese persecution and reduce Chinese influence over domestic affairs

Canada-China relations have a long and complex history. Recently, Canada has been reluctant to speak out against the human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese government due to China’s rising influence and robust economic status. The threat of losing important economic ties with China appears intimidating enough to prevent the Canadian government from doing little more than “condemning” the detention of approximately 1.5 million Muslim ethnic minorities, particularly Uyghurs. As a middle power, Canada may not have the required clout or international backing to go against China, one of the world’s most powerful countries. Indeed, our recent failed bid to gain a temporary seat on the UN Security Council has highlighted to many Canadians just how little authority Canada holds on a global scale. However, this policy of appeasement seems to have backfired, and now is the time for Canada to stand up to China.

The current situation

In December 2018, Meng Wanzhou was arrested in Vancouver on an extradition request from the United States. Meng, CFO of Huawei, has permanent residency in Canada, and has been charged with fraud in the US. Despite predictions from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that Meng’s arrest would lead to significant bilateral consequences for Canada, the Canadian government moved ahead with securing the arrest. Almost a year and a half later, Meng is still awaiting a hearing on her possible extradition to the US.

The predictions of CSIS proved to be accurate. Two Canadians, now known widely as “the two Michaels,” were detained by Chinese authorities in the days following Meng’s arrest. Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur, and Michael Kovrig, a former diplomat, were arrested and have been detained in secretive conditions and subjected to isolation and interrogation since December 2018. The two were only formally charged in June of this year, on charges of espionage. The detention of the two Michaels was widely understood to be in direct retaliation to Meng’s arrest, though Chinese officials initially refused to publicly acknowledge a link between the two cases. Most recently, however, a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry made the link between the two explicit, by implying that the two Michaels could be freed if Ottawa were to drop the case against Meng. 

Although this statement did little to change the understanding of the situation, some have argued that this open acknowledgement has made the political situation even more difficult for the Canadian government. Now, if Canada were to end the case against Meng, it would be impossible to claim that it was not in response to the Chinese government’s arrest of the two Michaels, an admission that the Canadian government is unprepared to make. According to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to do so would signal to China, and all other countries, that randomly arresting Canadians would give them leverage over the Canadian government. Canada would like to avoid any indication that they could be susceptible to hostage diplomacy. That being said, it was already highly doubtful that Canada would drop the charges against Meng, as doing so would undoubtedly alienate its closest ally, the US. 

China’s hidden influence in Canada

Canada’s fraught relationship with China extends beyond tense diplomatic relations. Recently, CSIS released a report which detailed the ways in which China exerts influence over Canada, suggesting that the Chinese government actively interferes with Canada’s economy and politics, and has been doing so for years.

Canada’s dependence on trade with China makes our government less likely to make foreign policy decisions unfavourable to China or criticize their human rights abuses, for fear of hurting our economy. With the second-largest GDP in the world, China is a formidable trading partner. In 2019, Canada’s bilateral merchandise trade with China  was worth nearly $100 billion annually, at 8% of Canada’s total. Although this number is much smaller than Canada’s bilateral merchandise trade with the US, the highly asymmetrical relationship means that Canada is much more dependent on China than vice versa.

After Meng was arrested in December 2018, China subsequently imposed restrictions on Canadian canola products, soybeans, and peas. Mid-2019, China completely stopped importing Canadian meat products and accused Canadian meat exporters of forging veterinary health certifications, an allegation that has not been proven. Although the Chinese government did not say these were retaliatory actions, the suspect timing leads economic and political experts to think so. Now that the BC Supreme Court has allowed Meng’s extradition to continue, experts predict that China will retaliate by imposing further bans on Canadian exports.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also gradually increased its influence over Canada’s politics through the United Front Work Department, which the CCP claims is a democratic consulting organization. The department has been a part of the Chinese government since 1979, but its size and activity has rapidly increased under the leadership of current President Xi Jinping. Under the guise of improving foreign relations, the department infiltrates political parties, student groups, and media companies to spread pro-China messaging and stifle criticism. The author of a report on the United Front’s operations revealed that there is a high number of Canadian attendees at United Front conferences and events, suggesting active United Front activities in Canada, and subsequently, high levels of Chinese interference.

The Chinese diaspora in Canada

The long history of Chinese migration to Canada has created a large Chinese diaspora, whose involvement in society and politics significantly shapes Canadian-Chinese relations. Currently, Canadians who identify as ethnically Chinese make up 5% of the overall population. An additional 14,000 Chinese students are enrolled in Canadian universities. However, some of the Chinese diaspora, especially those with family or economic ties in China, are forbidden from fully exercising their freedom of expression, a Charter-protected right. Even in Canada, they continue to live in fear of the Chinese Communist Party, which is known to punish outspoken dissidents. In 2019, Human Rights Watch reported that a journalist stopped publicly criticizing the Chinese government after the government threatened their family members, a student was too afraid to ask questions critical of Chinese environmental issues, and many interviewees chose not to attend Tiananmen vigils for fear of being spied on. By turning a blind eye to Chinese intimidation, the government fails to honour the fundamental democratic values it champions . 

In addition to maintaining an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship, the Chinese government also mobilizes the diaspora to spread pro-China propaganda and repress movements critical of the state. For example, Confucius Institutes claim to promote Mandarin learning and cultural exchange among the diaspora, but in reality, the contents of its programs are strictly controlled to comply with CCP standards. After a whistleblower brought these issues to light in 2011, some universities and school boards ended their relationship with Confucius Institutes, but two school boards and six universities continue to host them. In 2019, protests on university campuses in support of the democracy movement in Hong Kong were disrupted by pro-China counter-protests, with counter-protestors drowning out chants and washing away chalk messages.

Other subtle ways in which the Chinese government monitors and manipulates the diaspora is through technology, including popular messaging and social networking applications such as WeChat and Weibo. WeChat conversations, including those conducted in Canada, are collected, analyzed and saved in a database that is accessible by Chinese public security agencies. And if users discuss issues that offend the Chinese government, they are censored and can no longer send messages nor post to their social media feeds. By doing so, the Chinese government effectively transforms its messaging technology into a vehicle for propaganda, by only allowing its citizens and overseas Chinese to access state-approved content.

Failures of the IRB, IRCC, and current government

In part due to our trade reliance on China, and China’s increasing foreign interference, the Canadian government remains largely silent and passive on the enormous issue of the detention of Uyghurs in China and the brutal crackdown on the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement. 

The arbitrary detention, forced re-education, and inhumane treatment of Uyghurs in the Chinese Xinjiang region is not a secret. There is widespread knowledge about the abhorrent conditions and clear cultural genocide faced by millions of men and women in these detention camps. The Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada (IRB) is clearly aware of the long-standing plight of Uyghurs; as early as 1993, the IRB published an article on the treatment of Uyghurs by the Chinese government. However, the most recent article on the treatment of Chinese Uyghurs was published in 2002, a full 18 years ago, which reflects the failure of the IRB to accurately document Uyghur oppression in China.

Immigration, Refugee, and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) has also done next to nothing to improve the situation of Uyghurs attempting to enter Canada. Despite the clear risk of maltreatment and persecution including risk of torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment (CIDT) if returned to China, Uyghurs are not listed among those who have less complex claims. In other words, nothing has been done to help expedite refugee claims of Chinese Uyghurs. However, this is not just the failure of the IRCC. The minister of immigration, refugee and citizenship, lawmakers, and elected officials also have the power to amend refugee and immigration policy, yet nothing has been done to address the plight of Chinese Uyghurs seeking refuge in Canada.

Canada has also been reluctant to speak on the democratic struggles in Hong Kong, with a news outlet commenting that “our prime minister and foreign affairs minister are even dodging the word ‘condemn.’” As millions of people have taken to the streets in Hong Kong to protest China’s increasingly tightening grip, sparked by plans to allow extradition to mainland China, Trudeau has remained tight-lipped, and offered no plans for concrete action. Furthermore, he has dodged questions on whether Canada will consider sanctions against Chinese officials, or push for the creation of a UN Special Envoy to Hong Kong. Even as approximately 50 Hongkongers are seeking asylum in Canada due to fear of unjust prosecution, the Trudeau government (and other political parties) remain largely silent. Now, with the new national security law, those asylum seekers could face life in prison for vaguely-defined offences of subversion, succession, terrorism, and foreign interference. Essentially, Canada’s stance on the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has been to offer “concern,” and little more.

What Canada must do now

Trudeau’s refusal to engage in hostage diplomacy is a step in the right direction, but Canada must do more. By refraining from pointing out China’s wrongdoings and allowing Chinese influence over domestic and diplomatic affairs to preserve our trade relationship with China, we have put ourselves in a vulnerable position. 

Now, Western nations are standing up to China, and we must join them. The United States has passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act and Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which will sanction officials complicit in human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong respectively. The United Kingdom is offering almost 3 million Hongkongers a path to British citizenship. Australia refused to be bullied into submission by Chinese trade threats and is continuing to push for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. 

It is time for Canada to live up to its reputation as a champion of human rights and offer refuge for victims of Chinese political persecution. Following China’s implementation of the draconian national security law in Hong Kong, Canada suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong, and stopped exports of sensitive military items to the city. But that is not enough. Canada should expedite refugee claims for Uyghurs and Hongkongers, or impose Magnitsky legislation, which sanctions individuals, freezes their assets and bans their entry into the country, against Chinese officials responsible for the genocide in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong officials who facilitate and justify police brutality in the city. 

Going forward, Canada must also be mindful of Chinese interference, and must take a more proactive approach to preventing future attempts.  To do so, we must decrease our dependence on trade with China, to protect ourselves against potential economic retaliation from China.

Given China’s expertise and innovation, the technology sector is particularly vulnerable. The three telecom giants have refused offers from Huawei to co-develop a Canadian 5G network, but the government has yet to issue an official statement on its stance. Canada should also consider investigating mobile apps of Chinese origins i.e. WeChat and TikTok, and if they infringe on users’ privacy rights and arbitrarily censor users, the government should ban these applications from the Canadian market.

Canadian politicians must be cautious of indirect Chinese influence. All political parties and their representatives must ensure that they do not have strong economic ties or vested interest in China, as those personal interests might be used to manipulate their public work. Offers of foreign donations or free trips to China from the United Front must be turned down, and Chinese diplomats involved in the organization must be expelled. In addition, any communications with their constituencies through Chinese spyware must also be strictly banned. Democracy is a core Canadian right entrenched in our Charter, and we must preserve its integrity. 

Canada, we have tried our best to maintain a friendship with China. In reality, China is more of a playground bully, manipulating and intimidating us at every opportunity. Perhaps it is time to reconsider this relationship.