Skip to main content

Lynette H. Ong is a professor of political science and China expert at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, University of Toronto.

On Monday, the news that Canadian Robert Schellenberg has been sentenced to death on drug smuggling charges in China sent shock waves throughout Canada. Mr. Schellenberg is not the first Canadian to be sentenced to death over drug offences in China, but the current state of relations between Ottawa and Beijing makes those shock waves feel like seismic earthquakes.

Mr. Schellenberg’s retrial came after the detentions of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, in China on charges of violation of national security law, which followed Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou under its extradition treaty with the United States. His initial 15-year jail sentence – which he appealed at a retrial that his lawyers knew could put a harsher punishment or even execution on the table – can’t help but be perceived as another retaliatory action by Chinese authorities, making him a pawn in frigid bilateral relations. Execution, too, is generally seen as a violation of human rights in Canada, and so Canadians are right to be outraged. “It is of extreme concern to us as a government, as it should be to all our international friends and allies, that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply [the] death penalty … as in this case facing a Canadian,” Justin Trudeau told reporters on Monday morning.

Now that the worst-case scenario for Mr. Schellenberg has come to pass, it is hard to see this judicial decision as independent of politics, even though there is no hard evidence to suggest the Chinese court was under any instruction to hand him a harsher sentence. But it should be noted that in China’s Communist system, the court is not independent of the Party or the government.

Where does this leave us? As I have argued in Foreign Policy, China is being very short-sighted with its retaliatory actions. There is no doubt that China has developed tremendous economic power, technological prowess and military might over the last few decades. Under President Xi Jinping, China has demonstrated no qualms about showing the world what it is capable of doing. But is it in China’s long-term interest to showcase its raw power so crudely?

China is no longer the closed nation it once was under the Cultural Revolution. Chinese multinational companies now have footprints all around the world – from the United States and Canada to smaller powers in Asia, Latin America and Africa – and have become de facto global ambassadors. Now more than ever, China’s behaviour is under the microscope. How it acts has implications for a range of international political issues, from Taiwan reunification to the China-India border dispute to the South China Sea dispute. There are also the growing concerns of Chinese influence in the domestic politics of Western democracies and on developing countries looking to its Belt and Road initiative for infrastructure spending. China’s responses also have ramifications for Mr. Xi’s global ambitions; after all, no country would prefer to deal with a belligerent power if it had a choice not to do so.

Beijing’s increasingly aggressive behaviour means it is also losing friends in Canada. Here, there are those who perceive Canada-China relations in binary terms: that human rights are an issue that can’t be compromised on, and should preclude any sort of relationship with China. However, there are also Canadians who see the importance of engaging with China despite its record on human rights, including Canadian multinationals, intellectuals who are long-term observers of China, and policy-makers in Justin Trudeau’s government. The living standards and economic rights of Chinese citizens have improved tremendously in the last few decades, which would not have been possible if the West or the rest of the world had turned its back on China. The need to engage with China goes well beyond the simple lens of trade and commerce.

China is a growing superpower that Canada can ill-afford to ignore in geopolitics, especially as Canada works to balance and even hedge against its relationship with the United States, which is experiencing the erosion of its own democratic institutions. Yet China’s behaviour of late has made it so much more difficult for those who believe in engaging China and who have been defending China on issues other than human rights.

Mr. Schellenberg is allowed to appeal to a higher court in China; the fates of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor also hang in the balance. We cannot foretell what will happen, but we can be certain that the longer China allows this to drag on, the more friends it will lose in Canada and across the Western world. You cannot stop a big bully through a fist fight, but one hopes that you can appeal to his senses with moral suasion.