Ottawa goes meek and gentle with Beijing

Terry Glavin: The Trudeau government’s newfound faith in ’appropriate discussion’ is the Canadian equivalent of ’thoughts and prayers’—an easy out when dealing with the China lobby
Hong Kong Protests
Masked protesters flash their smartphone lights as they gather near the Polytechnic University to urge authorities to release the remaining trapped protesters, in Hong Kong, Monday, Nov. 25, 2019. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition won a stunning landslide victory in weekend local elections in a clear rebuke to city leader Carrie Lam over her handling of violent protests that have divided the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. (AP Photo/Ng Han Guan)

With Beijing’s most determined allies decisively crushed by a democratic alliance in Hong Kong’s district elections over the weekend, at least somebody’s putting up some kind of a fight against Xi Jinping’s increasingly savage aggression and belligerence. Because it certainly isn’t Canada.

An unprecedented 71.2 per cent turnout on Sunday in the ordinarily humdrum local elections resulted in a massive triumph for pro-democracy candidates and a withering rebuke to the Chinese Communist Party and its puppet Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive. Out of 18 district councils, all formerly under the establishment’s control, 17 are now in the democratic camp. Of the 452 posts up for election, Hong Kong’s democrats took nearly 400 of them, quadrupling their seat share. Pro-Beijing parties lost 243 seats.

It was a lot less uplifting that while Hongkongers were streaming to the polling stations over the weekend, at the 11th annual Halifax International Security Forum here in Canada, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan telegraphed the strongest signal yet that after several months of dithering, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government has decisively retreated into the Liberal Party’s traditional approach to relations with Beijing—appeasement, capitulation, and normalization.

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“We don’t consider China as an adversary,” Sajjan said at the forum’s opening on Friday.

Hongkongers certainly do. So do the Uighurs of Xinjiang, a Muslim people whose persecution has accelerated to the point that at least a million of them are confined to concentration camps and forced-labour zones laid bare in the greatest detail yet in a trove of leaked Chinese  government documents just released by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. So do Tibetans, whose dispossession and oppression over the past seven decades is now being replayed in Xinjiang—and whose tragic predicament, once a hallowed cause in Canada, is now rarely if ever even mentioned in polite company.

In the only critical area of bipartisan foreign-policy consensus left in the United States, Americans certainly see China as an adversary. In one of the only victories Hongkongers have achieved in their efforts to win some effective international solidarity, the U.S. Congress adopted the Hong Kong Democracy and Human Rights Act last week. The law requires U.S. agencies to review whether Hong Kong is still eligible for favourable trade treatment in U.S. law, and opens the door to sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials who are trampling on the fundamental rights of Hongkongers.

The findings of Canada’s own National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians contradicts the weird claims Sajjan made at the Halifax conference. Last April, in its first-ever annual report, the committee officially declared China a threat to Canada’s national security, owing mainly to Beijing’s hostile espionage, its cyber threats and its subversive overseas influence-peddling operations.

Security Forum president Peter Van Praagh, Sajjan’s co-host at the weekend gathering, sees the same too, and he said so. “I think it’s clear that China and Canada do not share the same interests. There is some intermingling on some issues, but China has a very different view of the world than Canada’s view of the world. And so, what are we willing to surrender in terms of our own values in co-operation with China, and where is that line drawn?”

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For several weeks now it has been increasingly evident that Trudeau’s government is willing to surrender a great deal and to draw that line where Beijing has always wanted it drawn—with diplomatic and corporate relations inside the relationship, and all those bothersome “Canadian values” about human rights, democratic accountability, the international rules-based order and the rule of law left entirely outside of it.

Beijing has always understood the Liberal Party as the political wing of the Canada-China Business Council. And now Trudeau is giving every impression that the way to repair the 11-month-old crisis in Canada-China relations—as if putting things back together again should even be Canada’s objective in this at all—is to conform with Beijing’s expectations, to a fault.

It is something of a cruel irony that at the Halifax security conference where Sajjan denied the very existence of an adversarial relationship between Ottawa and Beijing, the forum’s prize for public leadership was awarded to Hong Kong’s brave democracy movement, Beijing’s most committed adversaries. The award was accepted on behalf of Hongkongers by 23-year-old protestor Figo Chan and the veteran Democratic Party leader Emily Lau, 67.

Among the victors in Hong Kong’s local elections Sunday were some of the most outspoken personalities in the Hong Kong uprising, including Jimmy Sham, convenor of the Hong Kong Civil Human Rights Front, the coalition that has organized Hong Kong’s largest and most dramatic marches since last summer. Last month, Sham was severely injured after being attacked in Kowloon’s Mong Kok district by five pro-Beijing thugs armed with hammers.

Sajjan addresses the Halifax International Security Forum on Friday (Tim Krochak/CP)

Among the losers was the vulgar pro-Beijing district councillor Junius Ho, notable for such outbursts as the demand that Hong Kong sovereigntists should be “killed mercilessly.” In one of the earliest escalations of anti-protester brutality, in July, when pro-Beijing triad gangsters attacked passengers at Yuen Long station in the New Territories, Ho was on hand to shake hands with the attackers and call them “heroes.”

The Hong Kong uprising began as a mass protest against an extradition law which would have absorbed Hong Kong into China’s judicial structure, a vast party-controlled penal system that boasts a 99 per cent conviction rate. The protests quickly blossomed into a democratic insurrection, with demands for universal suffrage—one person, one vote. That demand remains core to the protests—the weekend’s local district elections have little bearing on the formally-gerrymandered voting system that assures Beijing’s control of Hong Kong’s legislative council and executive office.

After attempting to suffocate the protests by denying parade permits and shutting down the metro system to disrupt attendance at rallies, Lam’s administration enacted an emergency powers law last month that unleashed Hong Kong’s already-hated police force in a dramatic campaign of brutality, harassment, tear gas and mass arrests. It didn’t work, and only provoked a more determined response from democratic hardliners, mostly students. Lately they’ve resorted to defending Hong Kong against the savage brutality of Lam’s police battalions with molotov cocktails, burning barricades and bows and arrows.

In a reference to Beijing’s judicial kidnapping of diplomat-on-leave Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor last December, Sajjan said: “We do have two Canadians that have been arbitrarily detained in China and we ask China for their expeditious release and that’s extremely important to us.”

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But Canada has been asking for Kovrig and Spavor to be released ever since Chinese state security picked them up and locked them away in an undisclosed location last December. Over the weekend at a G20 meeting in Nagoya, Japan, our new foreign affairs minister, François-Philippe Champagne, was again asking China’s Wang Yi for Kovrig and Spavor to be released.

Kovrig and Spavor were picked up just days after Canadian Border Services officials detained Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Beijng’s “national champion” telecom giant Huawei, at Vancouver International Airport. The daughter of Huawei founder, billionaire and veteran Communist Party figure Ren Zhengfei, Meng was named in a U.S. Justice Department warrant outlining several charges related to bank fraud and corporate sanctions-evasion in Iran. She is awaiting extradition proceedings while living at one of the mansions she owns in Vancouver.

The arrest of Spavor and Kovrig on obviously bogus espionage charges was followed by the elevation of jail terms to the death penalty for two other Canadians convicted on drug charges, and a series of embargoes on Canadian agricultural products. Canada has taken no countermeasures. Not so much as a penny’s worth of a tariff.

Since the early days of the Obama administration, U.S. congressional and national security officials have been warning Canada to steer clear of Huawei. Ottawa still hasn’t made up its mind about allowing Huawei into Canada’s fifth-generation internet connectivity rollout, even though a green light could end Canada’s engagement with the U.S., Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom in the “Five Eyes” security and intelligence consortium.

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As for Xi Jinping’s explicit determination to bring down the curtain on 70 years of the western-guided international order, here’s Sajjan: “Some of the things that China from a security perspective have been doing is concerning, and we need to be mindful of that. But it’s only through the appropriate discussions that we are able to get back into a rules-based order.”

So that’s it, then. Appropriate discussions will do the trick. Thoughts and prayers, in other words. In the U.S., that’s how they deal with the stranglehold of the gun lobby. In Canada, we’ve got the China lobby.

First came the September appointment of Dominic Barton as Canada’s new ambassador to Beijing. Barton took over from the disgraced China evangelist John McCallum, and while Beijing was sad to see McCallum go, Barton was the replacement China had hoped for. In August, at a multinational summit in Bangkok, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi quietly told Canadian officials as much. Barton came pre-approved by Beijing, in other words. You can see why.

Barton had been an adviser to the state-owned China Development Bank, and he’d spent several years swinging big-money deals in Shanghai. During his years as managing partner of McKinsey & Company, the global consulting giant had taken on several Chinese state-owned corporations as clients. Just one of them was an enterprise building islands in the South China Sea, which Xi Jinping has arbitrarily annexed in defiance of the United Nations. Last year, McKinsey held its glamorous annual retreat in Xinjiang, just a short walk from one of China’s several Uighur concentration camps.

Meng was released on bail in early January and has remained under watch ever since in one of her Vancouver homes. (Photography by Jimmy Jeong)

So it can’t be said that it’s in Barton’s nature, exactly, to scruple about Beijing’s systemically colossal human rights outrages, and until last week Chrystia Freeland might have been counted on to hold back the Liberals’ most retrograde habits in their dealings with Beijing. There was still a chance that the long-overdue collapse in Canada-China relations would force the Liberals to come clean about their catastrophic policy follies of the past half century. That hope is gone now.

Freeland has been reassigned to intergovernmental relations and the mostly ritualistic post of deputy prime minister. Her replacement, Francois-Philippe Champagne, came straight out of the corporate sector when he was elected in 2015. He is not known to have ever uttered so much as a cautionary word about China. 

Champagne is a protegé of former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, which in itself is straight away a bad sign. Chrétien’s lasting foreign-policy legacy was his role in helping Beijing re-establish relations with western democracies in the years following the Tiananmen massacres of 1989. Chrétien has busied himself in the corporate consulting business in China, and giving governments terrible advice about China, ever since he left public office 15 years ago.

Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Steven Chase came upon a 2017 interview Champagne gave to the China Global Television Network, a Communist Party propaganda platform. Champagne’s flattery of the Beijing regime was as preposterously gushing as it was objectively absurd: “In a world of uncertainty, of unpredictability, of questioning about the rules that have been established to govern our trading relationship, Canada and, I would say, China, stand out as [a] beacon of stability, predictability, a rule-based system, a very inclusive society.”

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Last Friday, Beijing’s new ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, reiterated all the usual fictions about Canada’s treatment of Meng Wanzhou and uttered another threat, this one about the consequences of Canada following the bipartisan example of the U.S. Democracy and Human Rights Act. “If somebody here is really trying to push the decision to have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous, we would certainly be firmly opposed to that,” he said. “And if anything happens like this, we would suddenly have very bad damage to our bilateral relationship. And that’s not in the interests of Canada.”

Rounding things off was last week’s elevation of Mary Ng to the post of minister of international trade. It’s a file that’s just tacked onto her previous cabinet portfolio—small business and export promotion. Hired as an appointments secretary in the Prime Minister’s Office after the 2015 federal election, Ng was a political unknown until only two years ago, when she was elected MP in Markham-Thornhill, the riding held by John McCallum.

Freeland brought McCallum’s mercifully-brief diplomatic assignment to an end in January after he publicly contradicted her strict rule-of-law insistence in the Meng Wanzhou case. He’s since gone on to the lucrative corporate consultation racket in China—a pattern with these people. Last July, McCallum admitted to the South China Morning Post that he’d been counselling his former contacts in China’s foreign ministry about how Beijing should conduct itself to better assure the favourable outcome of a Liberal victory in Canada’s upcoming federal election campaign.

As for Mary Ng, there are two highlights in her strangely meteoric rise to the international trade ministry. The first was the controversy shrouding her connections to pro-Beijing activists in Ontario’s Chinese-Canadian community, including her associations with Michael Chan, the former Ontario cabinet minister who has gone hoarse-voiced lately from parroting Beijing’s propaganda lies about the Hong Kong democracy movement. The second was that time in July when she posted a photograph of herself with Senator Peter Harder, formerly of the Canada-China Business Council, hamming it up in a Beijing ice cream parlour.

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Not exactly a good look, as they say, for a government that claims to be so closely focused on the entombment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in some Beijing dungeon.

Just as Sajjan’s remarks at the Halifax Forum mark a kind of chapter-closing event in Canada’s claims to “world stage” moral rectitude in the matter of Beijing’s barbarism, Sunday’s Hong Kong election results mark a kind of watershed moment in the desperate and increasingly violent popular insurrection that has been drawing millions of Hongkongers into the streets since the early days of July. Apart from one or two timid statements about the virtues of non-violence and dialogue, Canada has had nothing of consequence to say about the Hong Kong struggle and has offered nothing to support the cause of Hong Kong democracy.

It’s clear now that Canada is not going to lift a finger.

David Mulroney, the former Canadian ambassador to Beijing, told the CBC on Sunday that China is “the greatest threat to human freedom on the planet,” and that while Canada has managed to stand up to Russia, to Saudi Arabia and Venezuela, “China gets a pass.”

That is an unimpeachable fact.

So while Canada accelerates its business-class rapprochements with Xi Jinping’s tyranny, the task of confronting the greatest threat to freedom on the planet has fallen to teenagers choking on tear gas in the streets of Hong Kong, fighting on almost entirely alone, with bows and arrows.