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Book Reviews Why Canada should take a stronger approach to China, according to Jonathan Manthorpe’s new book Claws of the Panda

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2017.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Title: Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada

Author: Jonathan Manthorpe

Genre: Politics

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Publisher: Cormorant Books, Pages: 336

China will likely regret its response to the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver last month.

As veteran journalist Jonathan Manthorpe explains in his remarkable new book, Claws of the Panda, the Chinese Communist Party has spent decades quietly infiltrating Canada in order to acquire influence over economic and political decision-making. It succeeded in conveying an image of China as a trustworthy partner rather than a demanding superpower, an image that became all the more attractive after Donald Trump was elected as President of the United States. But now, after the arbitrary detentions of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – and the resentencing of Robert Schellenberg with the death penalty – Canada is in a position to reassess the risks of collaboration with China.

Manthorpe begins with the engaging story of the so-called “Mish Kids”: the children of Canadian missionaries in late-19th and early-20th century China, who returned to Canada and rose to influential positions, including within the newly formed Department of External Affairs. The Mish Kids had considerable empathy for China, which they understood to be a fragile, conflict-ridden, developing country that posed no threat to Canada.

This benign understanding of China made Canadians easy targets for the Chinese regime, which began spinning a web of economic, political and person-to-person connections in the mid-20th century, long before Canada switched its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China.

Making business, political and personal connections is usually perfectly legal. However, this far-reaching effort was organized by the Communist Party of China, operating through official state organs, spies, informants, collaborators and unofficial, semi-state organizations such as the “United Front” – which controls all overseas Chinese “friendship associations.” Manthorpe’s detailed exposure of this decades-long process makes for chilling reading.

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More recently, China began using foreign investments to secure access to natural resources, technology and opportunities for espionage. By acquiring oil and gas companies, luxury hotels and office complexes, and firms that specialize in military technologies, Chinese companies – both state-owned and private – have greatly expanded China’s reach and power. Although Manthorpe does not examine this form of infiltration all that deeply, retired Canadian diplomats Charles Burton and David Mulroney have both written extensively and convincingly about it elsewhere.

Then, there is the strategic cultivation of politicians, business leaders and academics. As Manthorpe contemptuously explains, Canada sent the Communist Party of China “a steady stream of useful idiots, including political party and government leaders, rank-and-file politicians, naive and hubristic academics, greedy and gullible business people, and even some parochial and inexperienced journalists.”

The Chinese Communist Party’s efforts to monitor and control students and immigrants from China are especially insidious and often break Canadian law. As Manthorpe is careful to point out, the absence of the rule of law in China makes the situation all the more difficult, since Chinese citizens in Canada who are sought by the Chinese police and courts might be targets only because they oppose the regime.

China’s main attraction to Canada is the promise of access to an exceedingly large and fast-growing market. From forestry workers in British Columbia, to oil sands workers in Alberta, to lobster fisherman in New Brunswick, the livelihoods of Canadians increasingly depend on China.

Yet the Chinese Communist Party has never understood liberal democracies. Once Ms. Meng landed in Vancouver, the Canadian government had no option but to wait for the extradition process to run its course. This insulation of the judicial system from politics, which is necessary to protect core human rights such as due process, is alien to a regime accustomed to instructing judges which verdicts they will hand down.

The Chinese regime has similar difficulty understanding the insulation of counterintelligence from politics. In 2010, CSIS director Richard Fadden publicly stated: “There are several municipal politicians in British Columbia and in at least two provinces there are ministers of the Crown who we think are under at least the general influence of a foreign government.” The House of Commons Standing Committee on Public Safety and National Security was outraged by this statement and recommended that Fadden be fired. He was not.

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Nor can the Chinese regime understand a system in which the will of the people results in regular, peaceful changes of government. Democracy is seen a weakness, not a strength, by the men who spilled blood in Tiananmen Square.

Justin Trudeau came to power intent on strengthening relations with China. He began by greenlighting the sales of two high-tech companies, effectively providing cutting-edge military communications to the People’s Liberation Army. When Mr. Trudeau finally blocked a sale to China, it was of the construction company Aecon, a decision most likely based not on security grounds, but the concerns of other Canadian construction companies about their ability to compete with a heavily subsidized foreign-owned firm.

Mr. Trudeau was keen to negotiate extradition and free-trade treaties with China. Negotiations on the former began in 2016, while negotiations on the latter were supposed to be announced during a prime ministerial visit to Beijing in 2017 – until Mr. Trudeau again revealed his naiveté about China by including labour rights, women’s rights and environmental protections in his proposal.

Last but not least, Mr. Trudeau resisted banning Huawei technology from 5G wireless networks, despite Australia, New Zealand and the United States doing so. Canadian officials insisted that they could detect any back doors in Huawei equipment even when U.S. security agencies could not.

Canada was forced to take stock of its relationship to China when Kovrig and Spavor were detained. Mr. Trudeau will now be casting around for a new policy. And as Manthorpe and Burton have both pointed out, he would do well to follow Australia’s path.

Like Canada, Australia allowed itself to be pulled into China’s orbit. But then, two years ago, it began to push back – with a Foreign Interference Law that makes it a criminal offence to engage in covert activity on behalf of a foreign power with the aim of influencing a government process or the exercise of a democratic right. Australia also established a Critical Infrastructure Centre to assess the national-security risks of foreign investments, while tightening export controls on defence-related technologies.

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Mr. Trudeau could start by subjecting all proposed Chinese purchases of Canadian companies to national-security reviews, and cracking down on money laundering in casinos, real estate and luxury cars. Too many politicians have been willing to overlook the origins and long-term effects of billions of dollars of Chinese money flowing into this country, because of the short-term gains in employment and tax revenues.

Last but not least, our security agencies need political encouragement and public support as they investigate Chinese infiltration of Canadian governments, from the municipal to the federal levels. The fact that these investigations might expose agents and collaborators in high places is all the more reason for supporting them.

At the same time, dialogue and co-operation with China can and should continue. Canada is an international country that is strengthened, not weakened, by engagement with the outside world. As Manthorpe persuasively argues, we just “need to find a less self-delusional, more courageous, and more intelligent way of dealing with the new version of the Middle Kingdom.”

Michael Byers holds the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia

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