Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.
The entire world is furious with Xi Jinping.
Countries that had previously been friendly with China’s Communist Party government, including Iran, Nigeria, Indonesia and India, now have prominent figures denouncing Beijing for endangering lives and economies.
Countries that were already at odds with Beijing, notably Canada, have even greater reason for outrage. But Canada does not want to have anything to do with that other, far less principled or justifiable confrontation with China, the one originating from Washington.
The decisions by Chinese officials, after the first COVID-19 case was detected in Hubei province on Dec. 8, to keep the new virus secret for weeks, to allow hundreds of thousands of potentially infected people to travel, to misreport the severity of the epidemic to international organizations, to silence public discussion, and to punish those who spoke out against the secrecy, are key reasons why the world is now enduring a global pandemic rather than a regional outbreak.
That anger boiled over when Mr. Xi’s regime ordered its ambassadors to promote ridiculous conspiracy theories about the new coronavirus originating in the United States or Europe, then launched ham-fisted propaganda campaigns against Western democracies and critics of China. This pandemic has been an ugly exhibition, and consequence, of Mr. Xi’s authoritarian instincts.
Canada has extra reason to be outraged.
In January, Beijing announced that, on coronavirus grounds, there could no longer be any visitors to Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the former Canadian diplomat and businessman, respectively, who have been held in solitary confinement for more than 500 days. It is correct to refer to these men as hostages; they were arrested on clearly fictitious charges days after Canada detained Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in response to a dubious but legally mandatory U.S. extradition request in December, 2018.
Their mistreatment – both their risk of virus exposure and their total isolation – is a humanitarian crime, and only one of many diplomatic, economic and human attacks Canada has endured from Beijing over its small role in the U.S. case against Ms. Meng. It also stands in contrast to the Canadian treatment of Ms. Meng, who is free to live in her Vancouver house, and whose case has a high likelihood of being dismissed (as it should be) by a Canadian court this summer.
Given these circumstances, Ottawa has every reason to support an investigation into China’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis in December and January – an idea that has been advocated by a number of MPs and former diplomats. Indeed, we might want to join a recently-proposed European Union inquiry into Beijing’s concealment of data.
There is not really any mystery to be unveiled – China’s coronavirus missteps spring from the same authoritarian impulse that has led Mr. Xi’s regime to imprison a million people for their ethnicity and to try to crush local democracy in Hong Kong. The circumstances surrounding a disaster of this magnitude are worth documenting. And the House of Commons health committee is right to be investigating a related matter, the failure of the World Health Organization to alert the world about the emerging pandemic in time.
It’s welcome to see Canada’s parliament pressuring Justin Trudeau’s minority government to be less tolerant of Beijing’s excesses. But being tougher on China doesn’t mean associating ourselves with U.S. President Donald Trump’s flailing confrontation with Mr. Xi. If Ottawa is not clear that theirs is a separate set of conflicts, it will cost Canadians their credibility and ability to act.
Mr. Trump’s conflict is a more or less overt effort to trigger a counterproductive and unnecessary Cold War, just as the world needs it the least.
His gestures have generally been pointlessly destructive – calling the global pandemic that victimized millions of Chinese citizens a “China virus” or a “Wuhan virus,” spreading scientifically implausible conspiracy theories about the virus being an “attack” created in a Chinese lab, threatening the very existence and funding of the WHO (a thoroughly necessary if ill-managed international organization), refusing to participate in an international vaccine drive in which Western and Chinese scientists would share the best information. His threats of further trade and monetary warfare promise a lasting spiral of economic devastation.
As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd pointed out this week, both Mr. Xi and Mr. Trump will see their countries emerge from this pandemic greatly weakened, their leaders tempted to turn away from international co-operation and embrace military and hard-power solutions, tempted to launch a devastating full-scale “Cold War 2.0” that could easily turn hot. We have our own conflict with Mr. Xi’s regime, but we don’t want any part of that one.
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