There's no easy path forward in Canada's dispute with China, but there is a moral one

Canada's response to Chinese aggression has been lacklustre at best, and cowardly at worst. We need to take a stand in defence of the democratic principles we claim to represent.

Continued Canadian acquiescence will simply embolden the Chinese state

Canada's response to Chinese aggression has been lacklustre at best, and cowardly at worst. We need to take a stand in defence of the democratic principles we claim to represent. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

A few months ago, Hong Kong first erupted in major protest as millions of citizens poured out into the streets to demonstrate against a bill that would allow the Chinese state to extradite fugitives to the mainland. The former British colony has traditionally maintained an independent status under the "one country two systems" framework. However, protesters rightly fear that the Chinese state will use the bill to arrest dissidents, and stamp out Hong Kong's autonomous status in the process.

Three days after the major protests began, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland released a statement in which she expressed concern regarding the effects the proposed bill would have on Canadian citizens in Hong Kong. The statement went on to politely "urge" the government to find a solution via "thorough consultation and consideration."

The Chinese embassy in Canada quickly issued an aggressive response, declaring that, "Hong Kong affairs are purely China's internal affairs," going on to chide Canada for making "irresponsible" and "erroneous comments" concerning the new law. 

This diplomatic spat marked a rise in tensions that had been simmering since Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei, was arrested in Vancouver on an American extradition warrant last December. China responded by detaining two Canadians on bogus charges. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig now face indefinite jail time for what China vaguely refers to as crimes related to national security.

China retaliated after Meng Wanzhou's arrest by detaining two Canadians on bogus charges. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Canada has raised concerns repeatedly, releasing similar statements on China's treatment of its Uighur Muslim minority and the imposition of an Orwellian social credit system that tracks and ranks citizens based on "good behaviour." However, these statements are strikingly tepid, especially considering the extent to which China has been meddling in internal Canadian affairs.

A recent report from the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, for example, found that China has been using its large international diaspora, including students, to influence politicians to adopt pro-China positions.    

In February, Chemi Lhamo, a Canadian citizen of Tibetan descent, was elected student union president at the University of Toronto's Scarborough campus. Following her election, she received thousands of hateful messages accusing her of being "disloyal" to China. Lhamo has stated that though she is an advocate for Tibetan independence, her campaign did not address the issue and will not factor into her role as president.

In Vancouver, newspaper advertisements recently appeared accusing the Hong Kong protesters of being radicals and disloyal to China. Some of the organizations responsible for these advertisements are suspected of having links to "United Front," an arm of the government Chinese President Xi Jinping once described as a "magic weapon." Tasked with influencing the diaspora to lobby policy makers in foreign governments, the United Front has expanded significantly since Xi assumed office, presenting a critical challenge to Canadian interests. 

To date, Canada's response to Chinese actions has been lacklustre at best, and cowardly at worst. Canada needs to take a stand in defence of the democratic principles it claims to represent. Not only does China persecute its own people, but it is blatantly trying to influence Canadian internal politics. Canada must be a leader and work with its international partners in pressing China on its human rights record and international muscle-flexing. 

As such, Canada must join Australia in imposing a ban on Huawei 5G development. The security risk it poses — which includes concerns that it could facilitate spying by the Chinese state and data collection on Canadian citizens — is just too great. Such a move could encourage key allies such as the European Union and the United States to impose their own bans, delivering a significant blow to future Chinese espionage activities.

Canada, along with its international partners, should also explore the possibility of imposing targeted economic sanctions on Communist Party officials involved in human rights abuses. There are currently at least one million Uighurs being held in concentration camps, and Canada and the international community have a moral imperative to act. Such a process would be long, arduous, and complicated, but doing nothing isn't an option if we truly want to stand up for human rights. 

Which is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau needs to come out and condemn — not in tepid press releases, but in real, strong terms — China's recent repressive actions, not only for the sake of protesters in Hong Kong, but also for the 300,000 Canadian citizens living and working there. 

Some may claim that standing up to China puts Canada's economy and security at risk, and could further jeopardize the welfare of Spavor and Kovrig. Indeed, these are serious concerns; China represents Canada's second largest trading partner, and the impact of halting pork and canola imports has already been enormous. However, the cost of weakness in the face of Chinese aggression could result in decades-long, even generations-long disorder.

Continued Canadian acquiescence will simply embolden the Chinese state. There are no easy solutions here, but there is a moral one. Canada and its international partners must stand for democratic values, or risk facing a Chinese-led global order governed by repression, lawlessness and cruelty. 

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Patrick Groeneveld-Meijer is a junior fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies. Having completed his bachelor's at Concordia University, he will be pursuing graduate studies in International Peace and Security at King’s College London.


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