• By: Dan Donovan

Canada’s approach to China is based on misguided superiority complex and bad reporting

ABOVE: CIC President Ben Roswell practices censorship based on his own personal ‘comfort level.’   

A train wreck is an apt descriptive for Canada’s bilateral relationship with China under the Trudeau government. Given the current path of the government, it does not appear that this will change soon. Even worse is that the Erin O’Toole and the Conservative led Opposition party seem to have a visceral dislike for China that is even more contemptuous than the Liberal government. O’Toole sees China as an adversary at best, an enemy at worst. In his world, western culture represents the ideals of modernity and the enlightenment and the ‘rule of law’ whereas China, especially a China ruled by the Communist Party of China, represents darkness and repression.

This false narrative is the de rigueur thinking of the moment in Canada by the government, the official opposition, most universities and several so called think tanks. There are some contrarian voices who try to explain things from the Chinese perspective but in doing so they face harsh criticism for not towing the anti-China line. The Canada-China relationship is a complex subject that has been dumbed down into a good versus evil narrative due to tense relations between Ottawa and Beijing. What is required is reporting on the matter that can provide the comprehensive, truthful and reflective treatment it deserves.

Contrarian views on modern China are given little ink in the mainstream Canadian media who have wrongly bought lock stock and barrel into the Trudeau government line that China is bad, and that Canada is somehow standing on principle in continuing to be obstinate in our dealings with Beijing. Not helping matters is the strident and self-righteous Canadian media narrative on China that is very biased and one sided. Worse, is the crass and intellectually dishonest suck-up being displayed by several Canadian policy forums in not challenging this false China narrative or their role in suppressing alternate views presented  in their own forums.

 A case in point is the so-called, Canadian International Council (CIC), which self describes as: “a platform for citizens to engage in discussions on international issues. Our mission as an independent, non-partisan and charitable membership organization is to involve Canadians in defining our country’s place in the world”.

The CIC chair is former Liberal Cabinet Minister Bill Graham who served under the Chretien and Martin governments. He claims the “The CIC has a proud history of engaging Canadians in international affairs through its extensive national network of branches, research initiatives, conferences, publications and, more recently, internet-based information. That engagement is more important than ever in today’s highly complex and volatile international environment, one that influences Canada and the well-being of Canadians in ever increasing ways.” Heady stuff. Too bad it is based on a false narrative.

You would think that at a time when the Canadian government has completely bungled its relationship with China, the world’s most populous country with the second largest economy, that think tanks and their ‘experts’ here would be chomping at the bit to engage the issue and provide some perspective on how to get things back on track. Instead, we get the self-important and circular talking CIC whose board are mostly former or current public employees and former diplomats whose “platform for citizens to engage in discussions on international issues” is conditioned by the rule that you can do so if you agree with the way they think and their views of the world, or you can’t play in their sandbox.

Ottawa Life Magazine has been publishing an ongoing Canada-China Series since 2013 where we publish relevant information related to the bi-lateral relationship, including stories, columns and editorial features that present issues from the Chinese perspective, as well as from the Canadian government and other Canadian stakeholder points of view. The series focuses on bi-lateral interests, business affairs, people-to-people relations, Chinese culture, and the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

Before the arrest of Huawei Executive Meng Wanzhou in December 2018, Canada-China affairs were friendly and constructive. Then suddenly, after the arrest of Meng and China’s retaliatory act of detaining Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the Canadian government characterization of China changed, and China became ‘evil’. So evil in fact that Parliament recently declared it a genocidal state.

Last November we reviewed an article that Carleton professor and China expert, Jeremy Paltiel had written that was published through the CIC website. We approached the CIC for permission to republish Paltiel’s article in Ottawa Life which has a much larger, diverse, and broader audience. The article suggested that Canada’s approach to China was misguided. Incredibly, we were refused permission to republish it because according to CIC President Ben Roswell,  “I’ll be up front with you; I’m uncomfortable with the publication decisions that Ottawa Life have made on China recently."

Roswell went on to reference some interviews I had done with the Chinese Ambassador Cong Peiwu and noted that, while “It was a coup for you to publish an interview with the Chinese ambassador to Canada since he doesn’t do interviews with other Canadian media outlets to my knowledge. But Ottawa Life does not appear to have challenged him on any of his statements, even those in which he makes statements about the limits of China’s tolerance for the statements by the elected representatives of our citizens.” Besides the fact that his remarks are false (we questioned Ambassador Cong several times on matters related to the two Michaels), it appears that Roswell was more upset because we did not criticize or question Ambassador Cong ‘enough’ for making critical and negative statements about the Trudeau government and other elected officials.

I was perplexed why the president, of a so called ‘platform for citizens to engage in discussions on international issues’ would think it was the role of any media outlet, let alone ours, to defend or act in unison with statements made by the Canadian prime minister or any other elected Canadian officials. The role of the media is to probe and ask questions and push when required, to get further answers. If the respondent will only go so far in their answers, you don't shoot the messenger. I also wondered why the board of the CIC has empowered their president to practice censorship based on his own personal ‘comfort level.’   

In in his response to me Roswell says, '“I also feel we owe solidarity to our fellow Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor; the circumstances of whose detention merit an alternate perspective to those of the ambassador in your pages”. The problem with this of course is that besides the fact that Ottawa Life Magazine has covered the two Michaels on multiple occasions, Roswell is saying that he believes it is appropriate for ‘an independent body’ like the CIC to only support a narrative that endorses the Trudeau government policy on China.

And therein lies the reason why the CIC refused to allow the re publication of Professor Paltiel’s China article in Ottawa Life Magazine. As one of Canada’s foremost China experts, Paltiel’s paper was suggesting that Canada’s current approach to China is misguided. In fact, the summary of the paper states:

China’s foreign policy under President Xi Jinping has entered a new era. Xi has jettisoned Deng Xiaoping’s low profile foreign policy of “biding time in the shadows” to openly proclaiming China as an example for developing countries and the goal of “national rejuvenation” as a bid to take a place as a leading global power. To protect its domestic political order China under Xi challenges the universality of liberal values and seeks to reform global governance assure that China’s own political system and its cultural tradition are accommodated within its normative structure. This poses an unprecedented challenge to Canadian foreign policy at a time when the US under Donald Trump increasingly forces its allies to choose sides and support the primacy of US power. Chinese diplomacy under Xi is itself determined to draw “red lines” around its core interests and to punish countries who disregard its preference. The article concludes that while the rise of China poses unprecedented challenges for Canada’s postwar role and traditional diplomatic behavior, we should avoid seeing the rise of China and the US response in zero-sum terms. Core liberal principles can be defended alongside accommodating China’s effort to claim normative space for itself within the global order. We must strive to avoid casting the challenge of a rising China as a showdown between the West and “the rest.”

That perspective is in conflict with the CIC and its president and board who are only interested in views on China that support the Trudeau government narrative that China is evil and engaged in a genocide. A credible think tank would not shrink from sharing alternate views or the many missteps of the Trudeau government in its relations with China. It certainly would not suppress the republishing of a paper that posts an alternative approach that might help fix the problem. Instead, the CIC chose to check their brain at the door and become cheerleaders for the sitting government and their failed policy. 

The reality is the Ottawa Life Magazine interviews with Ambassador Cong Peiwu were in-depth and asked numerous questions about multiple bi-lateral issues including several on the two Michaels being held in captivity.

Cong Peiwu says Spavor and Kovrig are ‘in good health’ and it is up to Canada to ‘reset the relationship’ — Nov 2020

The opportunities and the tensions in the Canada-China relationship — Nov 2019

In the two interviews with Ambassador Cong, we had several  questions that dealt with the issue of the detention of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. In the second interview our questions and follow up questions to the Ambassador regarding the treatment of the two Michaels were picked up by numerous Canadian media outlets including the  CTV, Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Post Media, but I digress.

Ottawa Life Magazine has written numerous articles pertaining to what many esteemed Canadians and scholars have called the wrongful arrest of Chinese citizen Meng Wanzhou by Canadian officials in December 2018. This too seems to have irked ego-charged Roswell, who in his email to us says, “My worry is that Ottawa Life uncritically advances the perspective of a foreign state that is engaged in hostile acts against Canada and Canadians."

We have pointed out in our articles that former Prime Ministers Mulroney, Chretien, and Turner, former DPM John Manley, former Foreign Affairs Minister Llyod Axworthy, highly regarded Canadian diplomats Gordon Richie and Derek Burney and over 100 other former senior Canadian diplomats have all strongly come out against the Trudeau government's handling of China and ‘the Meng-Two Michaels’ affair.  One can only infer from Roswell’s delusory logic that they too are not acting in "solidarity to our fellow Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor" and “are uncritically advances the perspective of a foreign state that is engaged in hostile acts against Canada and Canadians.”

Ottawa Life Magazine’s popular and ongoing series on China is a critical contribution to an objective, informed public debate. We have published dozens of China-Canada articles over the past decade including an article on the national best-selling book ‘Claws of the Panda’, by Jonathan Manthorpe or the views of Jessica Shadian and Erica Wallis as reported in Policy Options.

Claws of the Panda — Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada — Aug 2020

When it comes to Canada-China relations, it is time to look North — Nov 2020

Ironically, the CIC is engaged in the very thing they and other Canadian organizations accuse the Chinese of doing—censorship. I must say I had a LOL moment with how Roswell ended his email to me saying, "I think it’s best that we go our separate ways on the public debate about China. Thanks for your understanding".

I think it is important to point out to Roswell, the CIC, and others in Canada that a "public debate or discussion about China" is not one if you are only having it with people who agree with your views. Unlike the CIC, Ottawa Life Magazine is a media outlet, and we are not in the pocket of the Canadian government nor do we feel compelled to support any government narrative on China. That Roswell and the CIC have the chutzpah (after suppressing a CIC academic article) to infer that Ottawa Life Magazine is biased or betraying Canada in some way because we published the views of the Chinese Ambassador on these same matters, is bizarre. (Hint: we are media!!)

It is the kind of mind-numbing thinking that can only happen when you have been talking to too many like-minded people at too many self-indulgent conferences for years and have become detached from the real world.  

Ottawa Life Magazine will continue to provide multiple views and alternate perspectives on China as well as the views of the Chinese, despite the ‘personal discomfort’ it may cause some.   

The video below by Cyrus Janssen is very informative and provides some insight into western media bias against China.