Canada’s relations with China have reached new lows that few would have predicted a few short months ago.
China’s reaction to Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in response to a lawful extradition treaty request has alarmed many in Canada and around the world. While Meng is free on bail, China detained two Canadians on questionable grounds and detained a third visiting her imprisoned and ailing father; imposed a death sentence on another Canadian after a hurried retrial; charged Canada with “Western egotism and white supremacy”; and threatened “consequences” should Ottawa show the temerity to impose security restrictions on Huawei 5G equipment as virtually all of Canada’s allies have done.
Not long ago, China had many defenders in Canada and around the world. People of good will who were realistic about the challenges China faces in its quest for modernization and development, and who wished the best for the people of China. Supporters who acknowledged challenges of human rights, environmental degradation, and unequal development in China, but hoped these could be resolved in time. People who were willing to give China the benefit of the doubt, to applaud her achievements and to be charitable about her failings. Unfortunately, China’s recent conduct has all but destroyed whatever vestiges of good will may have existed. Rebuilding it is an urgent task.
Not long ago, China had many defenders in Canada and around the world.
Hence, it is important to understand three important elements in China’s recent behaviour: projection, distraction, and respect.
First, China seems to be projecting onto Canada expectations about the rule of law and judicial independence borne of China’s own conditions. China’s socialist rule-of-law system is widely understood (including by Chinese officials) to be an instrument of rule rather than a restraint on government action. Public statements from Beijing to the effect that the government of Canada should simply direct Meng’s release suggest that PRC officials are unable to appreciate the reality that courts in Canada are not subject to political guidance from the government.
This reality was underscored by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in dismissing Ambassador to China John McCallum for remarks on the Meng case that could have been construed as political direction. The dilemma of China’s projecting to Canada its own assumptions about the rule of law can be addressed by increasing Canada-China co-operation on legal and judicial exchange programs to inform China’s political-legal communities about the reality of the judicial independence in Canada.
Second, China’s handling of the Meng affair reflects an effort at distraction. Needing to draw attention away from an economic downturn and related social challenges at home, the regime has pursued a range of international conduct aimed at showing strength abroad. Standing up to the West is a common theme, and now we find Beijing bullying Canada – the trading partner that has taken perhaps the most pro-China stance of any Western country in recent years. This dilemma can be addressed through intensified efforts at business and investment co-operation, including sector-specific trade agreements to help strengthen China’s economy while helping Canada as well.
A third element helping to explain China’s recent behaviour involves Beijing’s search for respect. Much ink has been spilled on the transition in China’s international posture from rule-taker to rule-maker, from passive participation to active assertiveness in global governance, from being a regional actor to wielding power more broadly. In this process, Xi Jinping’s government seems to be disregarding Deng Xiaoping’s directive that China not seek domination (what Deng termed “hegemony”), replacing Deng’s confident pragmatism with a more assertive stance. Unfortunately, now this is directed at Canada.
In response, Canada can remind China and others how respect is obtained more effectively through co-operation and adherence to international standards of law and governance. Examples abound of how U.S. campaigns to maintain dominance in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Latin America have been counter-productive, even self-defeating, but examples from China’s own record are also available.
China’s dominance of borrower countries lured into Belt-and-Road-Initiative development projects has alienated potential friends across South Asia, Africa and Europe. China’s conduct in the South China Sea, including aggression toward neighbours and refusing to comply with its treaty obligations on binding arbitration has angered potential supporters in Southeast Asia. Reactions to Xi Jinping’s most recent speech threatening Taiwan and its supporters continue the pattern. Canada can make a persuasive case that, as Deng Xiaoping predicted, seeking international domination invites push-back and is counterproductive to China’s own interests, amounting to little more than “lifting a stone only to drop it on its own feet,” as the Chinese aphorism puts it.
The current crisis will pass in time. But for the longer term, China’s friends around the world hope Beijing will find a new and positive direction that can rebuild its relationships and restore support in the international community. Genuine co-operation between China and Canada borne of mutual understanding, expanding trade and investment ties, and respect for international law can help.