Canada still needs to engage with China despite its human rights record, experts say
China is being accused of using coercive tactics to bring dissidents back from abroad
Canada must continue to engage with China despite its ongoing concerns about the country's human rights record at home — and new evidence of its efforts to coerce dissidents living abroad to return.
That's the message from two Canadians with extensive experience working inside China. They spoke to CBC's The House in an interview airing Saturday about the challenge of balancing the need for security with economic interests when dealing with a superpower that doesn't share Canada's democratic values.
"I think that as Canadians, we need to fight for what we think is right, but also fight for our own position in things," said Sarah Kutulakos, executive director of the Canada-China Business Council.
Relations between the two countries remain tense — even after China's release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, two Canadians whose arrests were widely seen as acts of retaliation for Canada's detention of Chinese business executive Meng Wangzhou on a U.S. extradition warrant.
Conservative politicians, including former MP Kenny Chiu, have accused the Chinese government of targeting them with social media disinformation campaigns during the last election. Chiu and two other candidates lost their seats in ridings with large numbers of Chinese-Canadian voters.
And this week, the international human rights group Safeguard Defenders released a report detailing dozens of cases where it says the evidence shows Chinese authorities used underhanded and immoral tactics to compel dissidents to return from Canada and other countries — tactics such as arresting family members still in China and even kidnapping individuals abroad.
Laura Harth of Safeguard Defenders told The House that most countries — Canada included — are unwilling to call out these tactics.
"We know Canada knows all too well the cases of hostage diplomacy that may be used. So there's a tendency to not really pay a lot of attention to this, which is why we think it's really urgent because this goes to the heart of national sovereignty," she said.
Her organization says it found seven cases of people living in Canada being approached by Chinese agents. In one case, a former judge on China's supreme court, Xie Weidong, was accused of corruption after he publicly criticized China's criminal system.
The Safeguard Defenders report said police in China detained his sister and his son to try to force him to return. He refused.
Harth said her organization wants to see the special Commons committee on Canada-China relations brought back. The committee was dissolved last year with the election call.
"If you're not able to protect the rights on our own grounds, that's a huge issue for all," Harth said. "So we ask the government to really investigate and expose these practices and to make sure there are adequate monitoring and protection mechanisms in place."
In a media statement, Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong told The House his party will seek to re-establish the committee — which the governing Liberals opposed in 2019 — in "due course."
Long-time diplomat Jeff Nankivell agreed that Canada needs to continue speaking out against China's treatment of minority groups inside its own borders, and to challenge any "coercive" measures taken against Canadian citizens like Spavor and Kovrig.
Not quite business as usual
"It's really important to signal that a return to business as usual is not open to us on the Canadian side," said Nankivell, now the president and CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.
"But at the same time, we need to signal an openness to meet Chinese leaders, to discuss with them about the things that we have as common interests. And we have serious interests on the Canadian side in areas like climate change and health cooperation. And there are also things that China is interested in talking to Canada about, some of them in the same areas ... so I think it needs that."
Kutulakos said her business group also would like to see Prime Minister Justin Trudeau re-engage with China's president Xi Jinping.
"You know, I will say the U.S. is sitting there fighting tooth and nail with China. And yet, Xi Jinping and (U.S. President) Joe Biden met for three hours recently," she said.
"Our own leaders are not having those meetings. And we have a variety of existing dialogues that are frozen that could be restarted such that we can call China out on the things we don't like, but also push for market access and other things that can contribute to Canada's prosperity."
Canada, of course, lacks the kind of economic and political clout the United States brings to the table in any discussions with China. That is a contest of equals.
Still, Nankivell said Canada has other options in Asia — other countries offering new markets and alliances as a counterbalance to China.