The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Canada’s leaders should take the Chinese threat more seriously

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, on Nov. 16. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office/Handout via Reuters) (Adam Scotti/Pmo/via REUTERS)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had another embarrassing viral moment this month, receiving what’s been widely seen as an on-camera “dressing down” from Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Group of 20 summit.

The fact that Trudeau’s supposed offense in the Chinese leader’s eyes was rather mild — “leaking” to the press that he had “raised concerns” about the state of bilateral relations with Xi after a previous meeting — doesn’t seem to have mattered. What mattered was that Trudeau — and, by extension, Canada — once again looked pathetic in the presence of Chinese power; a look so at odds with the public preference that it’s becoming one of the Trudeau government’s leading political liabilities.

Xi’s scolding, after all, comes in the aftermath of years of unsettling headlines documenting China’s increasingly imperious — if not imperial — attitude toward Canadian sovereignty. It’s an attitude successive Canadian governments have all but invited, as fantasies of what China could do for Canada’s wealth and status encouraged a generation of leaders to turn a blind eye to the unattractive realities of the Chinese regime.

This month, Global News published a dramatic story chronicling extensive Chinese intrusions into Canadian government and society, including “efforts to infiltrate, surveil and ‘mess with’” Canada’s Chinese diaspora community, the placing of “agents” in the offices of members of Parliament and, most shockingly, a covert network funding “at least 11 federal candidates” in Canada’s 2019 general election, assisted by “numerous Beijing operatives who worked as their campaign staffers.”

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A few weeks earlier, the China watchdog group “Safeguard Defenders” similarly alleged Beijing was operating three “overseas Chinese police service centers” in Toronto, as part of a larger system of surveilling Chinese nationals abroad.

And, before that, there were stories of Chinese soldiers on Canadian soil observing Canadian army training, extensive Chinese investment in Canadian oil and real estate (a 2015 report found one-third of housing purchases in Vancouver were by Chinese investors), Chinese state banks operating on Canadian soil, Chinese-backed education programs in Canadian schools, Chinese telecom companies gaining traction in the Canadian market (tech giant Huawei claims 1,500 employees in Canada), Chinese TV channels airing state propaganda on Canadian airwaves, and Chinese-Canadian newspapers filled with Beijing-backed misinformation.

Opinion surveys reveal a public hostile to all o­f this. Over the past 20 years, the percentage of Canadians with a favorable view of China has plummeted from 58 percent to 23 percent, according to Pew Research Center. A recent poll from Nanos found only 7.8 percent of Canadians think Ottawa should make closer ties with Beijing its first, or even second, priority. Aware of the changing tide, Trudeau’s government has cooled its formerly giddy rhetoric about what the prime minister once called “this most important relationship”; his foreign minister’s recently stated preference for “decoupling” from China represents a substantially revised road map for the Trudeau administration.

Xi’s opinion notwithstanding, however, Trudeau’s own language about the bilateral relationship has been noticeably circumspect, and the prime minister has been reluctant to share details on some of the recent explosive allegations of Chinese interference in Canadian affairs. It’s a defensiveness that’s easy to interpret as a symptom of the degree to which the leading figures of the Canadian establishment remain, even now, incurably bullish on the China file.

Consider the last Canadian federal election, in which Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole ran on a platform deeply critical of China, which he declared a grave threat to Canadian interests. When he lost, a narrative emerged among the political elite positing that his anti-China rhetoric had alienated Chinese Canadian voters, who apparently exist in large enough numbers to affect election outcomes. As with most theories of Canadian voting patterns, a lack of voter data meant this thesis was anecdotal at best, but the quickness with which it solidified into conventional wisdom does illustrate the degree that elite Canada was primed to view any hostility toward China as dangerous and destructive. As David Webster recently noted in the Conversation, this notion that China must be “engaged” with respectfully, rather than publicly reprimanded, has been Ottawa’s prevailing consensus since the 1990s, when growing interest in bilateral commerce meant “trade trumped rights.”

Beyond this, however, a deep vein of anti-Americanism in Canadian culture has long encouraged sympathy for theories of American weakness, or decline, and skepticism of an American-led global order. Grand premonitions of the coming “Chinese century,” or whatever, have thus always found an eager audience among Canada’s nationalistic political class — and may now represent something of a sunk-cost fallacy as Beijing’s brand continues to tumble.

There are more nakedly cynical theories explaining the slowness of top Canadian minds to change about China too, of course, particularly the idea that some substantial portion of Canada’s ruling class actively views China as a font of retirement sinecures and investment opportunities. This itself bears a flavor of anti-Americanism we could call “Cuba syndrome”: Just because the Yankees are too stupidly ideological to do business with this-or-that country is no reason for Canadians to leave money on the table!

Canada has a long history of principled resistance to authoritarian states. A disposition of patient tolerance for the world’s largest and most unapologetic dictatorship was learned only with decades of effort. One hopes the forgetting goes a bit faster.