Canada can’t afford to acquiesce to Beijing’s bullying and hostage-taking. And while it won't come out unscathed, it is in a stronger position than some other Western countries, writes Alex Ra Lee in the Ottawa Citizen. 

By Alex Ra Lee, December 7, 2020 

As Michaels Kovrig and Spavor complete their second year of arbitrary detention in China, there is increasing talk of Canada “standing up to China” for its coercive diplomacy and atrocities in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. But there’s a pernicious narrative that Canada is dependent on China, and that the costs of confronting Beijing are too high – even though a significant majority of Canadians view China as a threat, no doubt partly attributable to the Michaels’ detention. After all, what is the point of a middle power like Canada standing against a burgeoning superpower?

There is no cost-free way to deal with Beijing, but the cost of acquiescing to its bullying is far higher than a strong, strategic response. When our sovereignty, national security, and the safety of our citizens are at stake, Canada must take a stand.

China is Canada’s second-largest export market, but compared with other middle powers, Canada is relatively safe from retaliatory trade restrictions from Beijing. While sectors such as canola are overexposed, only four per cent of Canadian exports go to China: far lower than the United Kingdom’s six per cent, Japan’s 19 per cent, and Australia’s 33 per cent. What do these nations have in common? They’ve all banned Huawei from their 5G networks and have not hesitated to confront Beijing over its litany of offences.

What about the imports? COVID-19 revealed the risk of relying on China for essential supplies. In April, two planes sent to China to retrieve desperately needed medical supplies returned home empty. Another one million face masks that the Canadian government purchased from China were defective. In response, democratic Taiwan donated 500,000 medical masks across Canada. Thanks to smart industrial policy, Canada is now nearly self-reliant on personal protective equipment

What about Canadian universities, which rely on tuition from Chinese students? Chinese students hold 22 per cent of Canadian study permits. This is far less than the share of Chinese international students in Australia or the United Kingdom (33 per cent and 35 per cent, respectively), showing once again that Canadian higher education is considerably more diversified than in peer nations and the threat from Beijing is overstated. Chinese student numbers in Canada flat-lined years ago, and there are now far more Indian students in Canada.

Beijing’s influence in Canadian higher education creates its own risks. At McMaster University, a Beijing-backed student group was disbanded after its members were alleged to have coordinated with the Chinese consulate in Toronto to disrupt a speech critical of the Chinese government. At the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, Tibetan-Canadian student leader Chemi Lhamo received a barrage of death threats. A former CSIS official said it’s “beyond plausible” that this was coordinated by Chinese state actors. These challenges are not unique to Canada. But while Canada has dithered, smaller countries have taken action.

Start with Australia, which has two-thirds Canada’s population and is far more dependent on Chinese trade and students. Indeed, China has weaponized this dependence by attacking a long list of Australian exports including coal, wine, beef and barley. Like Michaels Kovrig and Spavor, Australian citizens Yang Hengjun and Cheng Lei have been the victims of China’s “hostage diplomacy.”

Instead of bowing, Australians have stood up for themselves. They’ve actively tackled foreign (Chinese) influence operations, including efforts to corrupt Australian politicians with “life-changing amounts of money.” They’ve banned Huawei 5G and blocked sensitive Chinese investments on national security grounds, denounced “unlawful” Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea, called out abuses in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and joined the United States, India and Japan in “Quad” military drills. Australian voters approve: amidst a successful coronavirus response and soaring negative views of China, Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s approval rating has been consistently high.

Or take Sweden, which has one-third of Canada’s population and sends 4.7 per cent of its exports to China. Like the Canadian Michaels, Swede Gui Minhai has been arbitrarily detained in China since 2015. But Sweden has both banned Huawei and terminated Confucius Institutes, which have been called Chinese “propaganda” designed to “brainwash” students.

The Czech Republic recently invoked Beijing’s wrath by sending a delegation to Taiwan. As a column in the Washington Post stated, “other than a lot of huffing and puffing [from Beijing], there has been no retaliation … the costs of a principled, values-based posture toward China are much smaller than [expected].”

There is no cost-free way to deal with Beijing, but the costs are reduced if like-minded nations are honest about the threat and work together on solutions. In a recent paper for the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, Andrew Pickford and Jeffrey F. Collins suggest that the world’s democracies “devise a common approach to trade boycotts and threats,” collaborate on defence, and ensure that universities and institutions have diversified funding streams so they are not overly reliant on Chinese students.

Canada needs a long-term strategy to deal with China’s increasing disregard for the rights of foreign nationals. The U.S., Australia and others have their own “Michaels,” but Canadians are particularly exposed because of their large numbers in China and Hong Kong and explicit threats by the Chinese ambassador here. Canada and our allies must take every opportunity to urge Chinese officials to cease arbitrary detentions and exit bans – and not just of our own nationals. We must encourage our citizens to return home, and warn businesses, universities, and tourists about the risks inherent when traveling to China – as the U.S. and Australia do, but Canada, glaringly, does not.

Canadians must protect ourselves from foreign interference. Australia recently passed legislation to expose and expunge Beijing’s malign influence, but Canada turns a blind eye to threats, intimidation and bribery within our borders. Pickford and Collins recognize that when faced with China’s threat, “Australia responded with institutional and legal measures to shore up the country’s sovereignty and national security,” and that “Australia provides particularly useful lessons” for Canada.

Most importantly, there needs to be a non-partisan consensus on how to approach Canada-China relations. China is not going away, and Canadian politicians need to be honest with the tradeoffs required to defend our sovereignty. No trade relationship is worth permitting Beijing to harass Canadian students, infiltrate our telecom networks and kidnap our citizens. The cost of inaction is far too high.

Alex Ra-Lee is director of Strategy and Policy for Alliance Canada Hong Kong, a Canadian advocacy group.

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