Diana Fu is associate professor of political science at the University of Toronto and author of the award-winning book, Mobilizing Without The Masses. Emile Dirks is a doctoral candidate in political science at the University of Toronto specializing in Chinese politics.
All politicians, whether authoritarian or democratic, always spin losses into victories. And for the Chinese government, the hostage-diplomacy saga surrounding Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou and the corresponding detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor seemed to come with plenty of wins.
Ms. Meng’s triumphant message to the Chinese public upon her return in late September signalled as much: “Without a strong motherland, I won’t have my freedom today.” And Beijing’s release of the two Michaels so quickly after Ms. Meng’s departure from B.C., where she had been under house arrest, seemed to warn the world: We keep our word, if you keep yours.
How Canada won, exactly, is far less obvious. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig may have been spared after more than 1,000 days in detention, but 115 Canadians are still detained in China. People such as Huseyin Celil and Sun Qian may not be known to most Canadians, but their cases are grim reminders that the Michaels are not the first Canadians to be lost to China’s judicial system, and will unfortunately not be the last.
For decades, rights activists in China have had to play guessing games about what might land them in trouble. But now, because of these cases, foreign travellers and those in the Chinese diaspora will have to contend with this uncertainty, too. Many Canadians with personal and professional ties to China are left wondering whether it is safe for them to travel to China, or whether they too will become sacrificial lambs in political tussles with Beijing.
Chinese government representatives have claimed such fears are overblown. In April, China’s ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, assured Canadians that “for the vast majority of people, they should not be worried.” That is hardly reassuring, particularly since the country’s judicial system has proven itself to be at the beck and call of the Communist Party of China. The detention of the Michaels and many others shows that, at the end of the day, China’s police and courts serve the Party, and if the Party views someone as a threat, it can detain an individual under whichever auspices it deems useful.
Ottawa should not expect to now be embraced by Beijing, as indicated by comments in Chinese state media. Many contentious issues will continue to haunt bilateral ties, including Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. What’s more, even if relations thaw in the short term, the political values of the two countries remain fundamentally at odds. An irreconcilable difference in the conception of political power and human rights will continue to drive a wedge in Canada-China relations.
In the coming months, Beijing and Ottawa may make overtures to each other to patch up the relationship. People-to-people exchanges, from meetings between officials to academic and civil society events, could be revitalized. Such exchanges would go some ways to furthering two measures in Ottawa’s four-fold plan for normalizing relations with China: co-existing and co-operating.
Ottawa may encourage some of these exchanges, and it should. It should not let suspicion of “Chinese influence” thwart all two-way flows between people. But after the hostage saga, Beijing needs to do more than diplomatic lip-service to assuage Canadians’ fears of traveling to China.
Justin Trudeau now faces a much tougher task than his father Pierre did in 1970, when relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China were first normalized. Trudeau the elder dealt with an isolated China that looked to Canada for diplomatic support; his son now reckons with a China that sees Canada as a weakling unduly influenced by the United States. Canada will likely be drawn into future disputes between the two countries, and its experience thus far shows how dealing with Beijing while maintaining a close relationship with the U.S. will be difficult for middle powers.
To that end, Ottawa should try to wean itself off its overreliance on American protection. Instead, it should continue to co-ordinate with other countries – including the U.S. – to plan joint responses to future acts of hostage diplomacy. The Canada-led Declaration Against Arbitrary Detention in State-to-State Relations released in February is a good start. But such declarations need to be implemented in practice. Signatories must be willing to adhere to its principles and respond to violations, no matter which country commits them. Only then will the circle of democracies be able to do the seemingly impossible: challenge and co-exist with the world’s most powerful authoritarian regime.
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