A Conservative MP took a free trip to China this spring that was in part funded by the foreign affairs arm of the ruling Chinese Communist Party – a department that is dedicated to wooing support overseas.
Babar (Bob) Saroya’s eight-day trip came amid the Chinese government’s continued efforts to reach out to Canada’s federal Conservative Party, which has publicly opposed signing a free-trade deal with China. The MP represents the Markham-Unionville riding, just north of Toronto.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer announced last year that the party disagrees with the Trudeau government’s goal of pursuing a trade deal with China, saying that while generations of Chinese immigrants have enriched this country, Canada should nevertheless focus on expanding trade with “like-minded democracies” such as India.
Mr. Scheer has yet to accept an invitation, first extended in June, 2017, to meet with China’s ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye. Mr. Scheer’s office says “scheduling reasons” are to blame.
That hasn’t stopped China from reaching out to other Conservative MPs such as Mr. Saroya. On the visit, he was told about China’s interest in having Mr. Scheer meet Ambassador Lu, so he can deliver a congratulatory letter from Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“So they sent a letter to the Chinese ambassador. They were trying to deliver the letter to Andrew Scheer, but nothing more than this,” Mr. Saroya said.
Mr. Saroya’s trip included stops in Beijing, where he met top Chinese communist officials including Guo Yezhou, the vice-minister of foreign affairs for the International Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee. Mr. Guo last October told the party’s 19th Congress how the party had been busy “making friends far and wide” around the world to support China’s position on matters including territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“When I was in China I did meet with some of these people. There was nothing special discussed,” Mr. Saroya said.
Mr. Saroya published a Chinese-language account of his travels on WeChat, the popular made-in-China social-networking application that gushed over his visit to the Great Wall and Beijing’s Forbidden City. “Even though my voters had mentioned this to me again and again, when I actually stood in front of these wonders of the world, I was still shocked and felt proud of the splendid culture created by Chinese people,” he wrote on WeChat.
The Communist Party’s International Liaison Department paid for the first five days of the trip and a Chinese-Canadian medical organization covered the final three days including airfare, a Conservative spokesman said.
Mr. Saroya initially told The Globe and Mail that the April trip was paid for by the Bethune Medical Foundation, but the Conservative Party later clarified that the Communist Party’s International Liaison Department of the Central Committee covered part of the trip.
Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center, said this party organ’s job is to advance China’s national interests, which includes making ties with opposition parties.
“The Chinese have learned very well that in democratic countries, parties come and government – the governments come and go – so it never hurts to build ties because this person could be in power tomorrow,” Ms. Sun said.
Mr. Saroya’s WeChat reporting on his trip ended with a pledge to press Mr. Scheer to travel to China, saying he “hoped to help make the [Conservative] party leader’s trip to China happen as soon as possible.”
A spokesman for Mr. Scheer said a visit to China isn’t in the offing. “It doesn’t fit right now with our schedule [and] fit right now with our priorities.”
Mr. Saroya said he informed the whip’s office of the caucus that he was going on a Beijing-sponsored junket. But the Conservative Party said Mr. Saroya didn’t seek Mr. Scheer’s approval before making his trip.
Mr. Saroya was highly critical of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for accepting a free vacation at the Bahamas luxury retreat of the Aga Khan, but he said he did not believe he was being hypocritical for taking a freebie from China and the Beijing-friendly Bethune Medical Foundation.
“It is basically different. That was a vacation. Mine was not a vacation,” he said. “I have 60 per cent [people of Chinese descent] in my riding, so they are my voters, so this is one of our jobs.”
The Chinese government has also reached out to Conservative Deputy Leader Lisa Raitt, who met China’s Toronto consul-general last November over lunch. The invitation had been made to Mr. Scheer. The discussions included trade negotiations with China and cultural outreach, she said.
The Globe and Mail reported last year that since 2006, parliamentarians have taken 36 trips to China sponsored by arms of the Chinese government or business groups seeking closer ties and trade with the one-party state.
With files from Xiao Xu in Vancouver.