Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

The Chinese government has announced it will put sanctions on Michael Chong, the Conservative critic on foreign affairs and a vocal proponent of a parliamentary resolution that declared the abuses against Uyghurs to be a genocide.Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

When the Chinese government announced it would put sanctions on Conservative MP Michael Chong, it seemed at first like there must be some kind of goofy mistake.

Chinese officials were firing back at the Canadian government because it imposed sanctions on four Chinese individuals over human-rights violations in Xinjiang, but somehow they missed the Liberal ministers in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet and hit an MP on the opposition benches.

Mr. Chong, after all, doesn’t run any part of government and doesn’t make any decisions on sanctions. He’s in opposition. You know, the folks trying to oust the government.

Is it possible that in their rush to smack back at Canada, Chinese government officials didn’t realize an opposition MP is not actually part of the government? Could Beijing really make such a dumb, clumsy mistake?

Well, no, probably not. The clumsy mistake it actually made is even dumber.

It took aim at its critics, shined a light on their cause, and made everyone rally round them.

Beijing obviously targeted Mr. Chong not because of what he did to them but because of what he said.

He is the Conservative critic on foreign affairs, and was a vocal proponent of a parliamentary resolution that declared the abuses against Uyghurs to be a genocide. That resolution passed unanimously in February, but Mr. Trudeau and his cabinet ministers abstained.

“There’s a clear message there: They’re giving the Liberal cabinet a pass on sanctions because they were good boys and girls who abstained from the motion recognizing a Uyghur genocide,” Mr. Chong said in an interview.

But Beijing has just raised the profile of Mr. Chong’s criticisms, like a pat on the back. On Saturday, Mr. Chong tweeted that he considered the sanctions a “badge of honour.” The Chinese also put sanctions on a Commons subcommittee involved in the Uyghur resolution. Beijing just gave the committee a shout-out.

That’s an encouragement to those critics. They get to needle the government to do more.

And Mr. Trudeau and his Liberal ministers – well, they don’t get to wear a badge of honour. But they sure had to quickly speak up to defend Mr. Chong and criticize Beijing, as both the PM and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau did over the weekend.

Obviously, the sanctions are not a tit-for-tat retaliation against government officials, but a message to foreign critics to shut up, or else. Beijing is telling critics to be afraid.

The thing is, Canadians have already heard that message loud and clear, in the berating words of Beijing’s diplomats, and the imprisonment of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. As Mr. Chong notes, public sentiment in Canada has already shifted, “as a direct result of China’s threats.”

So when Canadians see them impose sanctions on Mr. Chong, well, it amounts to an endorsement.

It is almost as if the sanctions, and a lot of the Chinese government’s message to the West, are designed to damage Beijing’s cause. Chinese officials scramble to take the critics to task, but their klutzy message backfires. They are the Keystone Kops of propaganda.

What are they really telling us with sanctions against Mr. Chong? That they will try to punish foreigners just for what they say. That they feel free to reach into Canadian democracy to demand their words in the debate. And that Beijing is to be feared.

That last part has really been coming through in the past few years. Canadians are getting the message, and so is much of the world.

Beyond Canadian MPs, China’s sanctions also targeted British parliamentarians, as well as a lawyer and an academic, all critics of Beijing’s treatment of Uyghurs; and in the U.S., the chair and vice-chair of the Advisory Commission on International Religious Freedom, Gayle Manchin and Tony Perkins.

It’s an unusual batch of sanctions, something Beijing doesn’t usually do. It came in response to co-ordinated sanctions imposed over Xinjiang by the U.S., Britain and Canada. And that, too, is part of the story: Western countries are increasingly talking about working together to deal with China, and that has Beijing worried.

But Beijing’s response will only encourage that co-operation. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government just put out a foreign-policy statement that waffled over how to deal with China, held a meeting with sanctioned parliamentarians to express support.

It turns out that nothing stiffens the spine for action against China quite like a message from Beijing.