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A House resolution on Uyghur genocide was a turning point in Sino-Canadian relations, and the public generally supported it. Many are willing to go further with economic actions – but the cost could be high

Uyghur women hold placards and flags of East Turkestan at a demonstration this past March 8, International Women's Day, near the Chinese consulate in Istanbul. Canadian MPs have passed a resolution declaring China's treatment of the Muslim minority a genocide.OZAN KOSE/AFP via Getty Images

Nik Nanos is the chief data scientist at Nanos Research, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, a research professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo and the official pollster for The Globe and Mail.

Last month, the House of Commons passed a motion declaring that the government of China was committing genocide against the Muslim minority Uyghurs. This represents a massive escalation, in tone and substance, in our current dispute with China, and further erodes the political licence of any Canadian government to find a solution to repair Canada-China relations.

Average Canadians seem to be on board with the steps taken by Parliament. According to a survey for The Globe and Mail by Nanos, more than eight out of 10 Canadians support (61 per cent) or somewhat support (22 per cent) the Commons motion. This support cuts across all regions and demographic groups. When asked about how they felt about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstaining from the motion, about six of 10 opposed (41 per cent) or somewhat opposed (18 per cent) the abstention.

IS IT AN ACT OF GENOCIDE?

Support for calling China’s actions against Uyghurs to be called an act of genocide

Unsure

Support

Somewhat support

Somewhat oppose

Oppose

61%

22

8

6

4

Support for the House of Commons to call the actions of China against the Uyghur Muslims an act of genocide

36%

33

8

10

12

Support for fast-tracking refugee applications of Uyghurs and other Muslims from China

12%

18

11

18

41

Support for PM Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstaining from the motion calling China’s actions an act of genocide

IS IT AN ACT OF GENOCIDE?

Support for calling China’s actions against Uyghurs to be called an act of genocide

Unsure

Support

Somewhat support

Somewhat oppose

Oppose

61%

22

8

6

4

Support for the House of Commons to call the actions of China against the Uyghur Muslims an act of genocide

36%

33

8

10

12

Support for fast-tracking refugee applications of Uyghurs and other Muslims from China

12%

18

11

18

41

Support for PM Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstaining from the motion calling China’s actions an act of genocide

IS IT AN ACT OF GENOCIDE?

Support for calling China’s actions against Uyghurs to be called an act of genocide

Unsure

Support

Somewhat support

Somewhat oppose

Oppose

61%

22

8

6

4

Support for the House of Commons to call the actions of China against the Uyghur Muslims an act of genocide

36%

33

8

10

12

Support for fast-tracking refugee applications of Uyghurs and other Muslims from China

12%

18

11

18

41

Support for PM Justin Trudeau and his cabinet abstaining from the motion calling China’s actions an act of genocide

In the heady days of 2016, some touted that a new free-trade agreement with China would “spur a $7.7-billion growth in Canadian exports by 2030 and help create 25,000 new jobs in Canada.” So much for the export growth and jobs. According to the University of Alberta, exports did rise in 2020, even with the pandemic, but most agree that the enthusiasm has been smothered by an accumulation of tensions.

The Canada-China relationship has become a grocery list of grievances, slights and tension. Back in 2016, the Chinese refused to agree to Canada’s demands to include gender, labour and environmental clauses in the potential free-trade agreement. In 2018, Canada – at the request of the United States – arrested Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The Chinese government has held Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor since 2018. Canada has been ruminating on the security risks of Huawei’s 5G technology. In 2019, China slapped a ban on Canadian canola, which has since been lifted. Now, Canada has passed the Uyghur genocide motion.

If this were a Shakespearean drama, one might say “let me count the ways…” to articulate how bad things are between Canada and China.

It would seem that Canadians are game for even more tension in the binational relationship. A healthy majority of people support (51 per cent) or somewhat support (19 per cent) pushing to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing. Of note, six out of 10 respondents (62 per cent) believed that the best path forward would be to work with the U.S. to impose economic sanctions against China.

SHOULD CANADA IMPOSE ECONOMIC

SANCTIONS AGAINST CHINA?

62%

14%

13%

11%

Impose

sanctions

Impose

sanctions

with U.S.

Unsure

Do not

impose

sanctions

SHOULD CANADA IMPOSE ECONOMIC

SANCTIONS AGAINST CHINA?

62%

14%

13%

11%

Impose

sanctions

Impose

sanctions

with U.S.

Unsure

Do not

impose

sanctions

SHOULD CANADA IMPOSE ECONOMIC SANCTIONS AGAINST CHINA?

62%

14%

13%

11%

Impose

sanctions

Impose sanctions

with U.S.

Unsure

Do not impose

sanctions

51%

19

10

11

9

Support for pushing to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing

51%

19

10

11

9

Support for pushing to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing

51%

19

10

11

9

Support for pushing to relocate the 2022 Winter Olympics out of Beijing

At some point, Canada may very well slam up against the reality that a middle power such as Canada cannot poke a political and economic superpower such as China in the eye and expect a positive outcome. Liking a regime is nice, but not necessary to protect and advance Canada’s interests. Some of our very close allies have had governments that were not liked by Canadians. Likewise, even Canada has been unpopular abroad in the past.

The current challenge is that there is no political capital to win or political licence to be given to repair the Canada-China relationship. The opposition parties understand that Canadians have hit a tipping point where they are, from a historical perspective, uncharacteristically belligerent against China. Being the leader of an opposition party is easy right now. When one is not the government, you can say or propose anything and worry after being elected about whether it makes for good foreign policy.

The Trudeau government is constrained both diplomatically and politically. It needs a cordial relationship to keep communications open while recognizing the increasing frustration in Canada with the Chinese regime. Like all relationships under stress, both parties have to take responsibility for the current situation. Both Canada and China likely recognize that neither are in a place they wanted to be five years ago when they were trying to hammer out a new free-trade deal. It is an unanticipated state of affairs for both countries.

Most Canadians understand that ignoring or provoking the second largest economy in the world should not be considered a Plan A for any trading nation. The big question: How can Canada and China repair the relationship?

The biggest obstacles are not just the substance of the grievances but the public-opinion environment in Canada.

First, the mood of Canadians on China is tepid, with little political licence for positive action. To the contrary, Canadians today are more likely to be open to future escalations whether they be economic sanctions or focused on relocating the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. A de-escalation focused on the economic trade-offs of poor relations with China can be a first step in starting a domestic conversation on the future of Canada-China relations. If Canadians want to scuttle the relationship, they need to know what the potential cost to the Canadian economy might be.

Second, the Chinese Communist Party needs to realize that antagonizing a trading partner pushes them away from China and further into the orbits of the U.S. and Europe. China has an economic interest in building positive capital with its trading partners.

The distance from economic prodigy to pariah could be quite short when consumers press businesses and shareholders press companies to boycott an out-of-favour country.

The challenge is that the toothpaste is out of the tube from a public-opinion perspective. Escalation is an easier short-term path for Canada and China but effectively is a disservice to both countries.

China wants Ms. Meng, the Huawei executive, released from custody. Canada wants the two Michaels out of prison. The path to even greater escalation can easily be visualized while the road to normalization is murky.


A note on the data

This column was based on a Globe and Mail/Nanos survey. The RDD dual frame hybrid telephone and online national random survey of Canadians ended March 4, 2021, and was comprised of 1,016 individuals. This is study is accurate 3.1 percentage points, plus or minus, 19 times out of 20. The report with full methodologies and their technical notes are posted at www.nanos.co.


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