Canada's Conservative party has a China problem

A second Cold War with China is upon us and Canada is caught in the middle of a geopolitical chess match, but the Cons think Trudeau is being naive

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      When Conservative party leader Erin O’Toole expressed shock in a tweet earlier this week about a “spike” in anti-Asian hate crimes in B.C. during the pandemic, it was hard not to do a double take. 

      It wasn’t so long ago that Conservative MP Derek Sloan, for example, was suggesting Canada’s chief medical officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, was in cahoots with China over the federal government’s handling of the coronavirus. Sloan has since been kicked out of the caucus for accepting a donation during his failed leadership bid from a known white supremacist. But when others in the Conservative caucus were agitating for Sloan’s removal during the Tam controversy, O’Toole was quick to defend Sloan.

      So if we’re looking for reasons why anti-Asian hate crimes are up in Canada—it’s no spike, it’s a tidal wave—look no further than some of the anti-China rhetoric from her majesty’s loyal opposition in Ottawa—not to mention, the misfits in the Conservative caucus who may entertain the idea that the current pandemic is a made-in-China conspiracy.

      The Conservative party has suffered from a kind of deranged syndrome when it comes to China—or maybe it’s just communists the Cons have a problem with. Certainly, O’Toole can barely spit out the word China without putting the word “communist” in front of it. It works for the base, especially out West where resentment over Chinese steel being allowed into the Canadian market to supply the LNG project runs deep.

      On Monday, the Conservatives turned up the temperature on its anti-China bombast, tabling a motion in the House calling on all parties to condemn China’s treatment of its Uyghur Muslim minority as “genocide”. The motion was passed unanimously. Liberal backbenchers supported the motion along with NDP, Bloc, and Green Party MPs.

      But Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t show up for the vote. Neither did members of the Liberal cabinet, save for foreign affairs minister Marc Garneau, who abstained from voting on the motion “on behalf of the government of Canada.” A second motion tabled by the Bloc calling for the 2022 Olympic Games to be moved from Beijing, was also passed, but a number of Liberal MPs voted against that. 

      China has become a fave target for Conservatives when it comes to playing up alleged shortcomings in the Trudeau government’s foreign policy.

      But after four years of Trump and a bitter trade war with the U.S. following a massive U.S. military build-up in the South China Sea under Obama, a second Cold War with China is upon us—and Canada has been caught in the middle of geo-political chess match between the two superpowers.

      The Trudeau government has sought the route of constructive engagement with China.

      But the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver in 2018 at the behest of the U.S. (for allegedly dealing with Iran in contravention of U.S. sanctions) has strained Canada-China relations. In an apparent act of retaliation, China arrested Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor on espionage charges days later.

      Canada continues to feel the fallout from Meng’s arrest, which is said to have influenced China’s decision to pull out of a deal to produce a coronavirus vaccine with Canada. Canada’s military has also asked the feds to ban Huawei from participating in the deployment of Canada’s 5G network.

      But to hear the Conservative party tell it, the Trudeau government has been too soft on China. 

      Michael Chong, the Conservative party’s critic for foreign affairs, said during a press conference ahead of Monday’s vote on the Uyghur motion that it’s time for “moral clarity” on China. And that Canada’s “equivocating simply emboldens China to threaten…and continue down the path of undermining human rights”.

      There’s little doubt that widespread repression of Uyghurs is occurring in China. On that issue human rights groups have been clear.

      Ketty Nivyabandi, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada, tells us that “there is ample evidence of grave violations including mass internment, surveillance, political indoctrination, forced sterilization, forced cultural assimilation, torture, and enforced disappearances in the East Turkistan region”.

      Amnesty International is urging the UN to establish an international fact-finding mission for East Turkistan and for China “to allow immediate and free access to the region to international observers”. Amnesty is also urging the Canadian government “to establish urgent and specific protection measures against intimidation for the East Turkistan diaspora in Canada”.

      But whether China’s treatment of Uyghurs meets all of the criteria of the UN definition of genocide is a separate debate. The Trump administration has said it does. Trudeau has offered, as others have, that to describe what’s happening in China as genocide could take away from the meaning of the word.

      Peace and labour groups in Canada, meanwhile, argue that while there’s little doubt that the Chinese government’s treatment of Uyghurs amounts to repression, Canada should be using what leverage we have to help bring China more into the fold internationally, instead of engaging in “hostage diplomacy”.

      The Canadian Foreign Policy Institute argues that Canada’s involvement in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance with Australia, New Zealand, the U.K., and United States is stoking conflict with China.

      Others, like NDP MP Niki Ashton, question the legal basis for Meng’s arrest and are calling for her release as part of an effort to normalize relations with China. A petition tabled by Ashton in the House last September is also calling for “a long-overdue foreign policy review to develop an independent foreign policy for Canada”.

      Some Conservative observers in Canada say the election of Joe Biden in the U.S. has already shifted the ground on China. The U.S. president signalled a possible reset of relations with China in a teleconference with Trudeau this week. Biden has reversed Trump’s position on Iran, and it’s possible he may drop Trump’s request of Canada to extradite Meng. That would solve a lot of problems for Trudeau.

      O’Toole’s Conservatives, however, continue to push the narrative that Trudeau has been weak on the China file. On Thursday, Conservative members of the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations called on the government to condemn Chinese government actions in Hong Kong and counter “the Chinese Communist Party’s foreign influence operations that are threatening and intimidating Canadians”.