CCP General-Secretary Xi Jinping as the top Canadian policy-maker? Sadly, yes. Beijing has reshaped Canada in ways that most Canadians don’t fully appreciate, and we ignore Xi’s growing influence here at our peril.

By Charles Burton, December 12, 2019

Each year, the Macdonald-Laurier Institute looks back at who or what had the greatest impact on Canadian federal public policy over the past 12 months. That person or institution is named the Policy-Maker of the Year, and always graces the cover of the December issue of the institute’s flagship magazine, Inside Policy. This year is no exception.

Of course, this does not necessarily mean the most positive impact, although some of Canada’s leading lights have been so recognized, including Truth and Reconciliation Commission chair Murray Sinclair, former foreign minister Chrystia Freeland, former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, former foreign minister John Baird, and former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney. But what we are really looking for is the one figure who has had a dominant role, for good or ill, in shaping government policy on the issues that matter most for Canadians.

Yet, this year a disheartening and desultory election campaign capped what has been a rather sorry year for fans of visionary political or policy leadership. We realized that the person who had done the most to shape public policy in Canada wasn’t even a Canadian. Indeed, on the question of who has done the most to reshape government policies, only one name truly comes to mind – Chinese Communist Party (CCP) General-Secretary Xi Jinping, though his impact on public policy is decidedly not in the best interests of Canadians.

Xi Jinping has forced more policy responses on Canada than any foreign leader, including even the US President. What follows lays out for our readers what we think has been Mr. Xi’s outsized policy influence in Canada.

Meng Wanzhou and the rule of law

Following Canada’s lawful detainment of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, pending a court process to determine her eligibility for extradition to the United States to face serious accusations of fraud, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) opted to pursue an aggressive, grossly disproportionate, and unlawful response – one that is leading Canada to compromise on our commitment to the rules-based international order.

The PRC arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on specious grounds of stealing state secrets, when in fact it was clearly retaliation for Meng’s detainment. Notably, Canada has made no meaningful response to the lack of due process of law (neither man has seen a lawyer and there have been no formal charges against them), and utterly unjustified harsh treatment. Kovrig is a Canadian diplomat on leave working for an NGO, and he has been interrogated on sensitive matters related to his past position in Canada’s Embassy to China, in gross violation of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

Not satisfied with hostage-diplomacy, Xi has also gradually ramped up his coercive tactics against Canada – from re-evaluating the case of our citizen Robert Schellenberg, which resulted in him being sentenced to execution on drug charges, to applying unjustified non-tariff barriers on Canadian agricultural exports to China. The latter has led to billions of dollars of lost income for Canadian soybean and canola producers as well as the Canadian beef and pork exporters. More retaliatory measures have been threatened.

Canadian business leaders and retired politicians – including such luminaries as Olivier Desmarais of Power Corporation and former senior political leaders like John McCallum, John Manley, Jean Chrétien and Brian Mulroney – have lobbied the Canadian government to show restraint, even going so far as to propose the abrogation of Ms. Meng’s extradition process currently under the purview of the BC Superior Court. In so doing, they promote a de facto, and false, moral equivalence between the actions of Xi Jinping’s Communist China and rule-of-law respecting Canada, exemplified by Manley’s recent plea for a “prisoner exchange” between Meng and Kovrig and Spavor, despite the completely lawful detainment and treatment of Meng versus the completely unlawful arrests and brutal treatment of Spavor and Kovrig.

If these views held sway – and they certainly do among a certain segment of our political class – Canada would be crying uncle over and over in the face of improper Chinese pressure, abandoning the principle of political non-interference in judicial processes to get the PRC to stop bullying us. Even worse, it would signify that Canada’s policy paralysis gives tacit consent for China to break down established global norms and institutions, which were designed to ensure fairness and reciprocity between nations. Mr. Xi’s success in perverting the Canadian policy process would only embolden China to engage in further coercive acts against Canada.

Complicity in silence

Back in 2018, MLI rightly recognized then Foreign Minister Freeland as Policy-Maker of the Year, thanks to her tireless efforts at promoting Canada’s interests and values abroad, defending human rights, and helping to strengthen the rules-based international order. Indeed, under her leadership, Canada has taken the lead in standing up to human rights abusers around the world – from a lead in the Lima Group against the Maduro regime in Venezuela to applying Magnitsky sanctions against officials from Russia, Venezuela, and even Saudi Arabia following the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Yet, in contrast, Canadian policy-makers of all stripes have tended to be highly complaisant rather than critical when it comes to China’s abysmal human rights record and many repressive policies, such as the mass internment and cultural genocide of the Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslim minorities in Xinjiang, political and religious repression of Tibetans, arbitrary arrest of lawyers defending political dissidents and oppressed religious minorities, lack of electoral accountability of political leaders, and a judicial system subject to arbitrary manipulation by the Party’s politics and law committees to which judges and lawyers are subservient.

Certainly, there have been hints of a more hard-headed approach when it comes to China’s human rights abuses, such as Canada leading a letter writing campaign with its allies that openly criticized the PRC’s mass internment of millions of people in Xinjiang. But a few hand-wringing letters from a government that has made battling Islamophobia at home and abroad a signature policy underlines the extent to which Xi’s policy influence in Canada has often been subtle and indirect, exemplified often by Ottawa’s silence on issues that, in other contexts, one would have expected a loud and vigorous Canadian response. Xi’s influence is often detected by the realization that Ottawa’s policy dog does not bark in response to Chinese provocation.

It has been far easier to stay silent completely or to offer only the most perfunctory of criticisms. Chrystia Freeland’s comments on Hong Kong, where she merely urged restraint on all sides rather than explicitly condemning China’s increasingly violent and heavy-handed actions, are a clear example of the latter. Another is her predecessor’s equally mild comments when an international tribunal in The Hague offered a stern rebuke of China’s claims to and militarization of the South China Sea, in which Stéphane Dion simply urged all parties to comply with the ruling. Remember that Canada is a proud signatory of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, in whose formulation we played an important role, and normally a staunch defender of the rule of law, as we have been in response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and slow motion invasion of eastern Ukraine.

Failing to blunt China’s sharp power

To understand such deference, it is useful to turn to PRC’s sophisticated engagement of Canada’s business and political decisionmakers. China has built up this network over many years, but Xi has substantially upgraded his CCP United Front Work Department’s capacity to implement “sharp power” influence campaigns around the world. And, according to Australian scholar Clive Hamilton, China’s influence operations have been more successful in Canada than in other democracies, such as Australia and New Zealand.

“Yes, Australia’s economic dependence is higher – in terms of trade,” observes Hamilton. “[B]ut when I look, as I have been doing, at the subtle but intense influence of China on Canadian institutions – parliaments, provincial governments, local governments, universities, the intellectual community, the policy community – it makes me deadly worried.” As he adds, “I have also been dismayed by the brazenness of friends of the Chinese Communist Party and their activities [in Canada].”

Yet unlike, say, Australia, Canada’s efforts to protect its citizens and residents from improper pressure and interference by agents of the Chinese state have been positively snail-like. Indeed, Canada has yet even to acknowledge openly that such a problem exists.

Much of Mr. Xi’s sharp power hold on Canadian policy-makers can be attributed to the power of money. China’s enormous market has proven a bonanza for some major Canadian agricultural commodity producers, mineral exporters and companies who have relocated production to China for its lower wages, and loose labour and environmental standards. They get the message from their Chinese state-owned enterprise partners and through the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa: China is vengeful if provoked. As a result, it seems that concerns about human rights, cyber-espionage, and harassment and intimidation of Canadian Tibetans and Uyghurs are simply set aside.

It is remarkable how China has been able to reach deep into Canadian society – whether we are talking about Canadian businesses, universities and college campuses, diaspora groups and associations, and politicians of all political stripes and levels of governments – with little in the way of public response.

Instructively this can be contrasted sharply with Ottawa’s attitude to the United States. It is a longstanding theme of Canadian politics to bemoan our southern neighbour’s undue influence and dominance, and legislation has even been passed purportedly to limit American influence in cultural and other spheres. Simply put, we would never tolerate outsized foreign influence from the USA or other countries, yet when it comes to China, we do so with nary a comment. Surely the explanation is at least in part that while we are far more dependent on America than China, we know that America will not kidnap our citizens and respects and shares our commitment to the rule of law. We keep quiet because we fear China’s vengeful and lawless response.

Any hope that Xi Jinping’s regime will continue to allow us market access if we have the temerity to displease him has surely been crushed by Beijing’s harsh and disproportionate reaction to Canada’s decision to detain a member of his Red élite, Meng Wanzhou. Similarly, Canada’s “timid and craven” attitude toward the protest in Hong Kong, despite 300,000 Canadians currently living in that territory, is informed by such a view. So too is Canada’s relative silence when it comes to Beijing’s shunning of democratic Taiwan in international fora.

The challenge of Chinese foreign investment

China has also shown a significant appetite to slowly accumulate stakes in valued strategic industries in Canada – from natural resources and infrastructure to advanced technology. Sometimes such efforts are blocked, such as when China’s state-owned enterprise CCCI attempted to acquire Canadian construction giant Aecon, which would have given it access to data on critical infrastructure, such as nuclear power plants. But, more often than not, such acquisitions succeed, such as China’s National Offshore Oil Company’s (CNOOC’s) takeover of Canadian oil company Nexen in 2013.

In either case, China’s aggressive attempts to gain a stake in key sectors of our economy have led to significant debate about the proper review of foreign investment but notably no comprehensive policy designed to protect Canadian companies from the predatory behaviour of Chinese companies that are not simply garden variety market players but active agents of the interests of Mr. Xi and his authoritarian national security state. Yet another Canadian policy dog that did not bark in response to Chinese trespassing.

As befits a country whose economic and technological rise has been premised on widespread pillaging of Western technological innovation, a particular priority of Xi Jinping’s China has been to loosen restrictions on the export of advanced technology with strategic or military applications. In 2015, the Liberal government allowed China’s O-Net Communications to acquire Montreal-based ITF Technologies, whose technology has applications for a new generation of directed energy weaponry. Equally controversial was the 2017 sale of Norsat International to China’s Hytera Communications. Norsat, it should be noted, had developed satellite-communication systems used by the US and Taiwan militaries, resulting in a rare rebuke by the Pentagon that it would review its dealings with the Vancouver-based company.

Now we face the prospect of Ottawa under pressure to risk our telecommunications and data security. As former National Security Advisor to the Prime Minister and MLI Advisory Council member Richard Fadden has made clear, the security implications of allowing Huawei’s equipment in our 5G network should not be underestimated, even if accompanied by Canada’s Communications Security Establishment monitoring of the installation for any hidden connections to Chinese intelligence gathering. Once Huawei is installed, any Chinese commitment to allow Canadian monitoring of Huawei systems – to prevent them from purloining data or threatening critical infrastructure – will likely be revoked. And there won’t be much we can do about it.

If Huawei is finally permitted to supply the equipment for Canada’s 5G network, it could be Xi’s greatest achievement in shaping Canada’s international policy. It will almost certainly lead to a substantial weakening of Canada’s participation in the US-led Five Eyes intelligence sharing partnership. This would be a major advance for the PRC’s overall geostrategic ambitions, weaken the Western alliance of which Canada has hitherto been an indefectible member, and render Canada even more susceptible to covert, corrupt or coercive approaches by Chinese agents of influence.

What “community of common destiny”?

The CCP United Front propaganda strategy promotes the idea that China’s rise to global dominance is preordained and inevitable. So Canada, to ensure its economic prosperity, must adjust its policy to the “reality” that the US is in decline and will continue to decline until China takes its place as the new global hegemon. This perspective is then reinforced by lobbying efforts by the major Canadian corporations enjoying associations with Chinese business networks. Canadian think tanks connected to China-related funding sources produce reports affirming this line.

The message is that Canada has no choice but to make compromises based on a doctrine of “if you can’t beat them, join them.” After retirement from public service, politicians and civil servants seen as collaborative by the Communist regime find themselves on lucrative boards, associated with law firms who represent China business, and bring new people into the circle of “friends of China,” as the PRC rewards them with awards and banquet toasts.

Building on the assertion that China’s rise to power in the world is essentially unlimited, Mr. Xi has expounded his vision for the future of international relations as “the community of the common destiny of mankind.” This doctrine implies the existing rules-based international order based in institutions such as the UN and WTO gradually fading into irrelevance, to be replaced by a China-oriented new global order. One example is the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), which may have the appearance and structure of a Bretton Woods institution but lacks many of the latter’s environmental and social safeguards. Importantly, the AIIB’s governance structure enshrines Chinese dominance, both in terms of its voting share and in its ability to nominate the powerful bank president.

Even more telling is the PRC’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a massive global infrastructure program to connect China with Eurasia through a network of highways, rail, pipelines and digital communications links (the belt) and a more extensive maritime network of port facilities from the South China Sea, Indian Ocean, to the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean (the road). Unlike the AIIB, the BRI remains under-institutionalized and is largely based on a globe-spanning network of bilateral infrastructure deals, in which China’s size and power give it important advantages.

Mr. Xi’s claim of inevitable global dominance has been quickly accepted by an alarming number of Canadian commentators. We hear that “the rise of China is bending the arc of history,” so Canada must “adjust rapidly to changing geopolitical realities arguably as profound as anything since the rise of the United States challenged the dominance of the British Empire in the late 19th century.” This rhetoric is certainly not based on sound comparative historiography, but underlies Canada’s acquiescence in Xi’s demands that Canada support China’s global ambitions – by participating in the AIIB and BRI.

Yet China accounts for a mere 4.7 percent of Canada’s exports compared to 75.1 percent of our exports going to the United States. While China’s GDP is ranked second in the world only to that of the USA, the UN ranks China’s GDP per capita as 75th in the world, just below Kazakhstan and just ahead of Cuba; in comparison, Canada is 19th, below Hong Kong, Finland and Germany. China’s rise is not necessarily a one-way journey. It must battle many countervailing factors. So, the prospect of Canada having to accommodate a new global order whose agenda is set by an overwhelmingly dominant PRC is by no means inevitable.

While Canadian public opinion is increasingly wary of enhanced engagement with China, the government continues to see promoting relations with China as a foreign policy priority for Canada. For example, in a major address on foreign policy, Prime Minister Trudeau pointed to the deep ties connecting Canadians and Chinese people and emphasized the “economic opportunities for Canadians.” Of course, he also reiterated the notion that “China has a political system and core values that differ from ours.”

Yet such words only reinforce the idea that “Chinese values” are at variance with “western values,” which has been propagated by Chinese propaganda over many years, while explicitly rejecting all discourse of “universal values” as encapsulated in the (largely Canadian-authored) Universal Declaration of Human Rights and associated covenants. At its root, this claim of “core values that differ from ours” is a justification promoted by China for countries like Canada to be “understanding” of China’s many repressive policies.


China hopes to see Canada’s alliance with the United States and its allies in East Asia – most notably Taiwan and Japan – further weakened. What China is pursuing is a zero-sum game of unfettered power politics. Nevertheless, Canada’s allies are becoming increasingly aware of the nature of the PRC regime and its geo-strategic ambitions. Through enactment of laws and regulations that clearly define and sanction PRC wrong-doing and misbehaviour, our allies seek to empower agents of progressive change in China to promote compliance with the letter and spirit of the international regimes designed to ensure political and economic justice.

Yet, in contrast, Canada has lagged well behind in this endeavour. Mr. Xi’s policies have sapped our national vitality and debased Canada’s national character based on commitment to the founding values that make Canada the harmonious and tolerant society we aspire to be: decency, fairness, reciprocity, honesty, and openness.

It is not too late to for Canada to stand firm against China. As noted earlier, there have been hints of a stronger, more forthright approach to China, such as our willingness to stand with allies in criticizing China’s repression in Xinjiang. The same can be said of our willingness to join allies in sailing naval warships in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, though such resolve is almost certainly driven by pressure from our allies far more than it is by our honest strategic appraisal of Xi Jinping’s China.

Canada’s allies are increasingly seeing Xi’s regime for what it is. It is time for Canada to do the same. Failure to do so will carry far-reaching consequences. Unless the Government of Canada does a significant rethink and reset of our national approach to China soon, it is likely that Xi Jinping will be Canadian Policy-Maker of the Year for many years to come.

Charles Burton is a senior fellow at MLI. He is a former counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.

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