Even the Nicest Country in the World Doesn’t Like China

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (right) and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang arrive at a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, September 22, 2016. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)
Beijing’s lack of transparency and veracity around its handling of the coronavirus is a factor in this steep decline in favorability.

Not long ago, Global News of Canada published an analysis on the important question: “Are Canadians really as nice as the world insists?” The article discusses the well-known stereotype from multiple vantage points, including the finding by researchers at Ontario’s McMaster University who even concluded that “tweets originating in Canada . . . tend to be kinder and gentler.”

More generally speaking, Canada is well-described as a tolerant, multi-cultural liberal democracy. That doesn’t require a lot of Twitter analysis. Like its neighbor to the south, Canada is a nation of immigrants. Unlike the United States though, Canada is on an immigration growth trend. Recent analysis in Forbes showed a 26 percent increase in legal immigration to Canada between 2015–2019, against a decline of 7 percent in roughly the same period for the U.S. According to government projections, the mother tongue of 1 in 3 Canadians will be a language other than English or French by 2031, up from 1 in 10 over the prior five decades.

Within this breadth of diversity are Canadians of Chinese descent, who constitute about 5 percent of the Canadian population, compared with about 1.5 percent for the U.S. Chinese Canadians make up 40 percent of Asian Canadians generally.

Putting that all together, Canada is a tolerant, multi-cultural, open democracy with a significant percentage of citizens with Chinese heritage. Which makes the findings of a poll conducted last month by the non-profit, non-partisan Angus Reid Institute (ARI) particularly compelling. In a survey of more than 1,500 Canadians from May 2–4, just 14 percent of respondents held a favorable view of China. A Pew Research Survey in 2017 held that number at 48 percent.

Beijing’s lack of transparency and veracity around its handling of the coronavirus is a factor in this steep decline in favorability. Eighty-five percent of poll respondents disagreed with the statement, “The Chinese government has been transparent and honest about the COVID-19 situation in that country.” Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau previously had said little about China’s handling of the virus. But in a briefing last week — subsequent to the publication of the poll — he told journalists that “there are many questions that need to be asked about the World Health Organization, about China and other countries’ behaviors” since the pandemic began.

Aside from mishandling COVID-19, Canadians also are fed up with China over another specific matter. In a high-profile case that has seized the nation, two Canadian expatriates are being held in prisons in China as hostages of the government, in reaction to the arrest on December 1, 2018, at Vancouver’s airport of Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese telecom behemoth Huawei.

The United States government had indicted Ms. Meng for fraud and other charges connected with Huawei’s alleged dealings with Iran to contravene U.S. sanctions. The U.S. seeks her extradition from Canada to face those charges, which are just one element in Washington’s global campaign against Huawei on national-security, intellectual-property, and other concerns. In addition to being a senior Huawei executive, Ms. Meng is a daughter of Huawei founder and CEO Ren Zhengfei.

Ten days after Ms. Meng’s arrest, Michael Kovrig, a former Canadian diplomat who had been posted to Hong Kong and Beijing and who now works for the International Crisis Group, was detained in Beijing. On the same day, the Chinese government detained Michael Spavor, an entrepreneur who has lived and worked in North Korea and now runs a tourism and cultural exchange service at the China–North Korea border.

“The two Michaels” as they have come to be known across Canada, have captured the public’s attention. The men have been charged with espionage, they are being held incommunicado, and they have not been able to receive visitors or spend any meaningful time with their families. Media organizations are keeping hostage watch calendars in the same way U.S. media did during the Iran hostage crisis of 1979–1980.

The prospects for these two unfortunate men worsened on May 27 when a Canadian judge refused to grant Ms. Meng’s request for dismissal of the extradition charge. The judge decided that the U.S. charges against Ms. Meng would have been crimes in Canada, too, at the time of her arrest. That so-called double criminality standard led to the judge’s ruling that the extradition hearing can proceed. Reflecting an increasingly assertive posture by the government in Beijing and a fundamental lack of understanding of the rule of law as democracies adhere to it, the state-run Global Times responded to the ruling by noting that it makes “Canada a pathetic clown and a scapegoat in the fight between China and the US.”

Just the same, Ms. Meng, who is under monitored detention, is free to move about and is frequently seen in public brandishing her ankle monitor almost as a wardrobe accessory, while the two Michaels sit isolated, charged, with grim prospects, in Chinese prisons. Canadian diplomats are prepared for the worst, including a possible death sentence on bogus potential espionage convictions.

The May ARI poll reflects the Canadian public’s growing antipathy toward China in areas related to these matters. While there were no questions about the hostages, the poll found 78 percent of Canadians feel that Huawei should not be involved in building the country’s 5G network. Three-quarters of the respondents said that human rights is the most important factor in China–Canada relations — with just a quarter responding “trade and investment opportunities for Canada” as the primary consideration — down 14 percentage points since before the December 2018 arrests. Overall, nearly 9 in 10 respondents agreed with the statement that “China can’t be trusted on human rights or the rule of law.”

These results are consistent with the emerging consensus in the U.S. and much of Europe that China is a strategic, potentially hostile competitor. In Canada as elsewhere, this overwhelmingly negative view transcends political party divisions. The enmity is consistent across the country’s provinces, too. Even in the western province of British Columbia, with the largest Chinese–Canadian population at about 10 percent, only 1 in 5 respondents have a favorable view of the People’s Republic of China.

Canada’s institutions had begun to sour on China even before the Huawei/hostage- crisis situation. China under President Xi Jinping is seen as a threat to national security and intellectual property rights, and as being out of sync with Canada’s long-standing support for human rights. In March 2018, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) held an academic outreach workshop for participants from government, business, universities, and think tanks. The proceedings of the workshop, published in June of that year, leaves no doubt about the conclusions of the collected expertise. In “China and the Age of Strategic Rivalry,” the assembled experts make several observations about China’s challenges to Canada’s economy and security, including:

  • A warning that Chinese companies, state-owned or not, have “close and increasingly explicit ties” to the Chinese Communist Party
  • The growing practice by China to “use threats and enticements to bring business and political elites to its side” including regarding China’s positions on Taiwan and other geopolitical issues
  • The emergence of aggressive postures by Chinese diplomats and others who are willing to “harass” media and academics who may challenge China’s activities. This is in line, for instance, with the Global Times reference to Canada as a “pathetic clown” in reaction to the Canadian court ruling on the Meng extradition.

On the heels of the CSIS report came a more scathing indictment of China’s designs on Canada. Just as the flurry around the arrest of Meng Wanzhou and the two Michaels was hitting in late 2018/early 2019, long-time foreign correspondent Jonathan Manthorpe published The Claws of the Panda, in which he describes a systematic campaign by the PRC to extend its influence into Canada. In his book — which is similar to Silent Invasion by Clive Hamilton published in Australia the year prior — Manthorpe details China’s extensive activities using “friendship societies,” universities, aggressive diplomacy, and other channels to influence and, where necessary, intimidate the Canadian public and its views on China. From Manthorpe’s perspective, the Huawei incident exposed China’s true designs for the ordinary Canadian, as reflected in the ARI poll.

It is no coincidence that books about overt and in some instances clandestine influence by China into Canada and Australia would appear around the same time. Each country is experiencing a similar degree of chauvinism and abuse, and each is a victim of similar tactics. Beijing is very deliberate about the approach. While the North American country is larger — and with a larger GDP — it shares with Australia a growing dependence on commodity exports to China. Two-thirds of Canada’s economy is trade, and China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner behind the United States. By contrast, Canada isn’t even in China’s top 15 trading partners.

China uses this leverage as a weapon to influence the broader relationship with Canada, as it did recently by putting tariffs on Australian exports to China when the Australian prime minister called for an independent review of Beijing’s role in the global pandemic. In the months following the arrest of the Ms. Meng and the two Michaels, the PRC blocked the import of Canadian canola oil, pork, and beef.

At the same time, Canada is growing wary not just of hostage diplomacy, but of China’s debt diplomacy, a pressure point that Beijing is using more aggressively around the world to grab strategic assets at distressed values during the pandemic. Both Australia and Canada recently announced an intent to take a closer look at strategic domestic acquisitions by foreign (read: Chinese) buyers. Chinese gold producer Shandong Gold Mining Co. Ltd., in early May announced its intended purchase of Canadian miner TMAC Resources for $207 million. The transaction is expected to be an early test of an April 2020 policy change when the Canadian government — echoing the CSIS report from 2018 about CCP influence on state-owned companies — announced it would “subject all foreign investments by state-owned investors . . . or private investors assessed as being closely tied to or subject to direction from foreign governments, to enhanced scrutiny under the [Investment Canada] Act.”

One challenge Canada faces in responding to China’s aggressiveness which differs from the situation Australia faces is an uneven — and perhaps even declining — relationship with the United States. The Trump administration should see Canada as a natural ally in its own desire to isolate Beijing. Regrettably, Canadian perceptions of the United States don’t reflect that. In the same poll in which so few Canadians have a favorable view of China, their view of the U.S. is not much better. Among the twelve countries in the survey, the three least favorable to Canadians are, from the bottom, Saudi Arabia, China, and the United States. Since 2009, the favorable view of the U.S. among Canadians has fallen 30 percentage points and is at a 40-year low. More Canadians see an opportunity for deeper relationships with the European Union than with the United States.

The relationship between the U.S. and Canada is always going to have its ups and downs, but it should be objectionable to Americans and Canadians alike to see such a decline in favorability between the two countries. At more than 5,200 miles, the U.S. and Canada famously share the longest undefended international boundary in the world, a reflection of more than two centuries of shared liberal-democratic values. Each country sees China for the authoritarian power it is, and each has an equal stake in containing PRC ambitions. This should be a compelling basis to reinvigorate relations between the U.S. and Canada.

President John F. Kennedy had been in office for just a few months when he delivered these memorable words to the Canadian parliament in May of 1961:

Geography has made us neighbors. History has made us friends. Economics has made us partners. And necessity has made us allies. Those whom nature hath so joined together, let no man put asunder.

That pathologically “nice” Canada should be fed up with the PRC is something we should embrace. That it is losing its faith in the U.S. as a favorable partner is a colossal waste. Liberal, tolerant, and democratic Canada is nothing but an opportunity for the United States to rekindle a natural relationship that has been — and can again be — the envy of the world.

Therese Shaheen is a businesswoman and CEO of US Asia International. She was the chairman of the State Department’s American Institute in Taiwan from 2002 to 2004.


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