Jonathan Manthorpe is a long-time foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist whose latest book is Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada, from which this essay is adapted.
The Chinese Communist Party must be looking at the debacle over Huawei and the arrest of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, and scratching its head in disbelief.
After all, this is just the sort of acutely embarrassing situation the party’s 70-year campaign to embed agents of influence in Canada was meant to ensure never happened. For most of those decades, the CCP’s influence among Canada’s political, business and academic establishments has ensured that Beijing’s interests have never been seriously challenged. Now, however, we may be facing a moment of crisis in Canada-China relations.
It is also a major opportunity for Canada to reaffirm its civic values and solidify global middle-power democratic alliances. Beijing’s influence among Canada’s elites has fallen foul of Canadian democracy, and the Canadian public says consistently in opinion polls that it is far more skeptical about the CCP than are national opinion-makers.
The greater sagacity of the public view has been more than justified by the CCP’s response to the detention of Ms. Meng and the espionage capacities of Huawei. The taking hostage by the CCP of former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor are classic examples of the risks run in dealing with a regime that does not believe in the rule of law.
Despite its influence in Canada over the past 70 years, the CCP remains ignorant about how Canada works in a crisis, and the Huawei affair shows it.
The CCP has been riding roughshod over Canadian values and interfering in Canadian internal affairs to a degree that sometimes amounts to a challenge to Canadians’ sovereignty within their own country. But I am not arguing that Canada should distance itself from the current regime in Beijing. As China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping and the CCP sees itself re-emerging as the world’s natural, irreplaceable superpower after two centuries of “humiliation” at the hands of Western countries, engagement with China cannot and should not be avoided. But what the often sad and difficult story of Canada’s 150 years of involvement with China tells us is that we need to find a less self-delusional, more courageous and more intelligent way of dealing with the new version of the Middle Kingdom. If Canada does not reassess and rework its approach to Beijing, this country may be steamrollered by the new juggernaut of history.
The tectonic plates of international power are shifting, thankfully peacefully – so far. But even two years ago, the world and its prospects looked very different. There were few visible hints of the cascade into political dysfunction and isolationism that overtook the United States in November, 2016. And it still looked as though Mr. Xi would follow the collegial style of leadership adopted in China following the depredations of Mao Zedong and the bone-jarring shock of the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising and massacre. But at the 19th Communist Party Congress in October, 2017, Mr. Xi set the stage for his own continuation in power beyond the two five-year terms that had become the norm. His personal power is now unmatched by any of his predecessors since Mao, and perhaps even further back than that.
Meanwhile, Canada’s chances of continuing the past 70 years of economic and security dependency on the United States look less and less secure. Donald Trump is a symptom of the isolationism that for many Americans has always accompanied their belief in the exceptionality of American society. More important, perhaps, is that Mr. Trump is the face of one side of the widening political and social divide within the United States that is making it nearly impossible for political and administrative life to function. It is already contributing to the withering of the American imperium, and it is accentuating the contrast with the rise of other countries, especially China.
In the rapidly approaching future, Canada is not going to be able to rely on Washington as an ally in regional security or a trustworthy partner in investment and commerce. More than that, the end of the Pax Americana means that the champion of the international liberal values that have characterized global discourse and institutions since the Second World War and that are at the heart of Canadian nationhood is withdrawing from the field.
When China began opening up in the 1980s, Western countries assumed that as the CCP became a stakeholder on the global stage, it would adopt the values of the established international liberal-democratic order. That is not what has happened. China has not emerged as a benign and benevolent beast. Far from it. It has all the hallmarks of a fascist regime, if one accepts the definition of fascism as being a country with a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition.
And yet the word “fascist,” while handy and accurate, is not quite appropriate. It is too Eurocentric in its associations. Mr. Xi’s China is most like that other post-Communist dictatorship, Russia, which is sometimes described as being driven by “Mafia capitalism.” But that also falls somewhere outside the truth. Whatever the CCP does, it does with Chinese characteristics. The management and style of the economy, the internal administration, the attitudes toward neighbouring and foreign states – these all owe more to Chinese traditions than to the country’s experience of the outside world since the end of isolationism in the 1970s. The Communist Party in Beijing oversees a modernized version of a classic Chinese imperial dynasty.
It is clear that the CCP’s dynastic ambitions include running a one-party state and resisting political reform with all the tools at its command. The CCP’s political legitimacy comes from massive internal repression tempered by efforts to provide a standard of living that discourages dissent. This has worked well since the era of revised Marxist economics began in the 1980s. Hundreds of millions of Chinese people have seen their standard of living improve beyond what they could have imagined. But with that improvement has come the expectation that their quality of life will continue to improve. This carries a threat for the CCP: If the party fails to continue to feed the desires it has created, it will lose the Mandate of Heaven, the historic concept of divine political legitimacy conferred on Chinese rulers only so long as they are successful.
Flowing naturally from China’s economic success is a heightened sense of patriotism and nationalism. State-controlled media incessantly pushes the theme of China riding a wave of national revival, to the point of stoking xenophobia, which is fed by appeals to ancient animosities toward neighbours such as Japan. The CCP misses no opportunity to fabricate warnings that, behind a facade of democratic pacifism, Japan remains a militaristic country.
Beijing also nurtures more recent suspicions that the United States and other Western countries are bent on containing China’s rise and reimposing the semicolonialism of the last half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Ending what the CCP calls the “century of humiliation” is fostered in part by reviving a sense of superiority over neighbouring countries. These were vassal states in imperial times, and the CCP suggests they will be vassals again. Indeed, some – such as Cambodia and Laos – already are. This trumpeting of refreshed Chinese imperialism includes pursuing territorial claims over Taiwan and in the South China and East China seas. The CCP’s construction of island military bases in the South China Sea has turned one of the world’s most important routes for international trade into what amounts to a Chinese lake. Much of the CCP’s colonialism is surreptitious. In the past two decades, about one million people from China’s southwestern Yunnan province have moved over the border into northern Myanmar. They are taking advantage of the business opportunities in the city of Mandalay and the attractions of the casino towns that have sprung up in the lawless regions under the control of Myanmar’s ethnic minority warlords.
For two decades or so, CCP state-owned companies and banks have been using the gargantuan profits from the export of manufactured consumer goods to acquire control of natural resources worldwide. Beijing has also been astute in offering cheap loans to governments others considered too risky. Too late, the recipients find that when they are unable to repay the loans, the CCP’s agents are ruthless in demanding assets instead. That’s how the CCP got control of the strategic Sri Lankan port of Hambantota and 60 square kilometres of land around it. Something similar happened when Greece fell on hard times and could no longer get loans from its European Union partners. Beijing stepped in to help, but the upshot is that a Chinese state-owned company owns half of Athens’s port of Piraeus.
The acquisition of Greek and other European ports is part of Mr. Xi’s most lavish imperial enterprise. His multitrillion-dollar “One Belt, One Road” scheme envisages a vast rail, road, air and sea network that directly links China to two-thirds of the world’s population in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Central Asia, South and Southeast Asia. All roads will lead to Beijing and will be a route for the CCP’s projection of power and influence throughout this modern version of the old Silk Road.
President Xi has made it clear that he has no regard for the values of democracy and human rights that have been at the heart of the international liberal order since the end of the Second World War. He is an evangelist among developing countries for China’s model of economic advances achieved by a secure one-party state managing a close-knit family of oligarchs and state-owned enterprises. It is a model that the leaders of many developing countries find attractive, especially when contrasted with the apparent disorder and internal disruption of North Atlantic liberal-democratic culture. Mr. Xi is equally skeptical about international institutions such as the United Nations, World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and all the agencies that have flowed from them. Those institutions do not represent the values of the world that Mr. Xi wants to create. He will either bend them to his will or supplant them with new bodies more to his liking.
The current CCP regime will not last forever. Dynasties never do, and the historical record in China is that they all die violently. This will likely happen to the CCP, but it’s not a good bet that it will happen anytime soon. Thus, Canada and all other countries having to engage with China while maintaining their own liberal-democratic institutions face some harsh realities. If Canada wishes to preserve its values and its standards of living based on trade in a world dominated by China, if it wishes to expand its influence as a global middle power, present and future governments in Ottawa need to prepare the ground. They need to cement political, economic social, and security ties within NATO and the G7, along with other like-minded countries. Canadian politicians need to assume a much tougher and more self-assured attitude toward Beijing than is now the case.