Guy Saint-Jacques served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016.
The expulsion of Toronto-based Chinese diplomat Zhao Wei, followed by the removal of Canadian consul Jennifer Lynn Lalonde in Shanghai, signals a growing deterioration in the relationship between Canada and China. But while we are going through tumultuous times, it may also serve as a new beginning with China – one where Canada can better protect its interests and values, as well as its citizens from foreign interference.
The fact that China chose not to escalate the situation (they could have expelled a more senior diplomat than Ms. Lalonde or a few people at her level) shows that it is also making efforts to contain the problem. Barring further measures from Canada (not expected in the short run), China is unlikely to impose economic sanctions on Canada, as this would send a bad message to foreign business people whom China, faced with a challenging economic situation, is trying to convince to come back and invest in the country.
Of course, many questions remain on why so little action has been taken so far by the Canadian government to counter Chinese interference. Let’s remember that a good part of the information leaked by CSIS (or someone who had access to CSIS reports) relates to events that took place between 2019 and 2021, when we were right in the middle of the major crisis that followed the arrest of Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver. Those reports should have triggered a number of reactions from the Canadian government. Are we faced with a systemic failure? A lack of attention by cabinet ministers, the Privy Council Office or the Prime Minister?
Given the circumstances, I would not be surprised if former governor-general David Johnston, who has been tasked with investigating foreign interference, comes to the conclusion in his May 23 report that a public inquiry is indeed necessary to help clarify these questions. More importantly, it would provide recommendations on what Canada needs to do to prevent further Chinese interference.
The Indo-Pacific Strategy announced by Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly last November mentions there will be no tolerance for such interference. A necessary first step would be to establish a registry for people who represent Chinese government entities, including state-owned enterprises: former Canadian ministers, high-level officials, ambassadors, etc. all have precious knowledge on how the government works that could be of much interest to these entities.
The powers of CSIS and the RCMP need to be revised so that they have the tools to better fend off foreign interference. Much effort is also required to reassure Canadians of Chinese origin that there will be serious follow-up if they report being harassed or intimidated by Chinese operators, diplomatic or not; unfortunately, they don’t have much confidence in the system right now. In this regard, the government must also pay much more attention to what is said on Chinese social media in Canada, such as Weibo and WeChat, which were used extensively by the Chinese regime to spread disinformation during the last federal election. If the government is serious about protecting Canadian democracy, it could immediately announce a series of concrete measures to address the problem. This won’t be easy as it requires monitoring communications in Chinese, but it can be done.
Now that Canada has finally indicated it is ready to take action – a move that has certainly been welcomed by our allies – efforts should be made to try to restore dialogue with China. These conversations should be limited to subjects of mutual interest, such as those flagged by Ms. Joly: climate change, biodiversity, public health and nuclear proliferation. Maybe China will show more respect toward Canada. In parallel, Canada should use all opportunities to speak with our allies to continue to develop common approaches and responses to the challenges presented by a bullying China. A good opportunity will present itself at next week’s G7 Summit in Hiroshima.
In terms of economic consequences, let’s remember that a new record was established last year in terms of our exports to China. Even if political relations are difficult, China will continue to need our natural resources and agri-food products for some time.
As Leonard Cohen once said, “There is a crack in everything – that’s how the light gets in.” Let’s hope the Chinese regime will see the light.