The moment a supposedly benevolent power snatches up two foreigners and inhumanely locks them away in an act of diplomatic retaliation, it ceases to be a benevolent power.
It was a lesson the Canadian government ought to have learned the day Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig were arbitrarily detained in China following the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou at Vancouver’s airport in December, 2018.
China was not a beacon of freedom and goodwill before it decided to engage in hostage diplomacy. Its domestic human rights abuses, clampdown on communications and free speech, aggression in the South China Sea and flouting of World Trade Organization rules (the list goes on) should have extinguished any notion that China of the 21st century was headed on the path toward greater liberalism, rather than sliding back into authoritarianism and repression.
But the effective kidnapping of two Canadians should have been a red line for Canadian engagement with China, extinguishing whatever lingering notion this government might have had about normal diplomatic relations with Beijing. China was – and is – a hostile power, yet for the past two years, Canada has resisted treating it as such.
Instead, last year, Global Affairs challenged a decision by General Jonathan Vance, chief of the defence staff, to cancel training exercises with China’s People’s Liberation Army at a military base in Ontario, just months after the two Michaels were detained.
As reported by my colleagues Robert Fife and Steven Chase, Global Affairs was concerned that China would see the move as “retaliatory” for the arrests, and it expressed concern that the move would “damage Canada’s long-term defence and security relationship with China.” The view of Global Affairs at the time, it would thus seem, was that arbitrarily scooping up and locking away two Canadians hadn’t destroyed the relationship on its own, but denying the offending party access to Canadian military space and knowledge just might.
Then this year, the Canadian government awarded a tender worth $6.8-million to Nuctech, a Chinese state-owned company, to supply security technology such as X-ray scanners for 170 Canadian embassies, consulates and high commissions across the globe, as reported by the National Post. The U.S Transportation Security Administration effectively banned Nuctech from supplying technology for American airports following a review in 2014, but six years later – amid warnings from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service about Chinese spying and domestic campaigns of influence and intimidation – Canada was prepared to pay the fox to guard the henhouse. The Canadian government eventually thought better of the agreement following a security review and, notably, an onslaught of negative press.
Earlier this week, The Washington Post published an explosive report about how Huawei has tested facial recognition software that could trigger a “Uyghur alarm,” which would alert police to the presence of a member of the persecuted minority. A Huawei spokesperson said the technology “is simply a test and it has not seen real-world application,” though Beijing is already known to use artificial intelligence to track and surveil its population.
Canada, meanwhile, is still dithering about whether to allow Huawei access to its 5G network, either out of the same gross naivety that would think it permissible to allow a Chinese state-owned company to install surveillance technology in our embassies, or based on the belief that making a decision will negatively affect the fate of the two Michaels. Yet Canadian obsequiousness has thus far not proven effective in releasing Mr. Spavor and Mr. Kovrig from the grips of a regime not known to reward niceness, and has served only to parade Canadian spinelessness while our Five Eyes allies announce their own Huawei bans or severe restrictions.
Then, there was the vaccine partnership. Back in May, the Canadian government announced it had partnered with a vaccine developer in China, CanSino Biologics, to create a vaccine to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet surprising only those who still believe in the myth of a benevolent China, the state blocked the export of the vaccine to Canada a few months later, and the partnership unceremoniously fell apart.
Throughout the pandemic, Canada’s Minister of Health has struggled to articulate even the most tepid censures of China’s obfuscations and distortions about the pandemic, even going so far as accuse a Canadian reporter of dabbling in conspiracy theory when he asked about the Communist Party’s cover-ups.
And so, even after China unjustly detained and imprisoned two of our citizens, Canada’s government trusted China enough to want to welcome its soldiers to train with our military, to install surveillance technology in its embassies and consulates, and to partner with a Chinese company to develop a vaccine on the belief that Beijing would nobly decide to play fair.
It’s all suggestive of a government that is trying to engage with a China that does not exist, and perhaps never did exist, and instead getting mauled by a hostile power that does. Canada’s tone toward China has become firmer over the past few months, but two years is an awfully long time to come to the realization that your citizens’ captor is not the benevolent partner you want it to be.
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