Forty years ago I was a “foreign expert” teaching at the Guangzhou Institute of Foreign Languages (now the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies). For a first-year lecture course on “life in the West,” I borrowed a lot of videotapes from the U.S. consulate. I had to hand them over to the audiovisual department the day before using them, so they could make copies. It was intellectual piracy, but no one cared.
Similarly, a bookstore in downtown Guangzhou was off-limits to foreigners because every title in it was an illegal copy of a scholarly or scientific western book. When I asked a Chinese colleague about the scholarly ethics of this practice, he admitted it was awkward. However, he consoled me, it would be okay if western scholars copied modern Chinese research. All that really mattered was catching up to the West and then surpassing it.
I would like to think that China, then in the early liftoff stage of its rise to world power, had outgrown those awkward years, and now pays for foreign research — or pays its spies for it, like any other great power.
But recent reports alleging China meddled in Canadian elections — even last year’s Vancouver race for mayor and council — suggest that China is going a little too far in trying to regain its old imperial clout.
For decades China has advertised itself as a non-judgmental friend of all, one that refuses to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs. This policy has enabled China to make profitable deals with some very unpleasant governments while also giving itself permission to snarl at any government or group that dares to criticize China itself.
The Chinese have a point. For centuries the West didn’t just want to trade with China on western terms; it wanted to convert China to some flavour of Christianity and impose western institutions whether they suited the Chinese situation or not.
But now Beijing has been accused of meddling with two federal elections as well as Vancouver’s last municipal election, and the resulting mess will take a long time to clean up.
The Trudeau government evidently knew about Chinese meddling in the 2019 and 2021 elections, and perhaps even earlier, and understandably kept it quiet. Our relations with China have been fraught at least since we arrested Meng Wanzhou in 2018. Canadian politicians and Chinese diplomats have been making faces at one another ever since, while still carrying on business as usual: in 2022 we bought $100 billion worth of goods from China, up from $86 billion in 2021. Consumer goods accounted for $31 billion of that, with electronic and electrical equipment close behind at $28 billion. And we’ve sold China $27.9 billion worth of stuff. Meddling is bad, but business is business.
But the Vancouver election meddling charges are more troubling, because they’re closer to home.
Second, and much more serious, they threaten voters’ trust in electoral integrity. Trump and his followers still claim the 2020 election was rigged, but the whole gerrymandered American system does look bad compared to Elections Canada. Whatabouters may claim that our elections are already influenced by everyone from Big Oil to local developers. But we factor that in; at least the usual suspects are more discreet about it.
Chinese intervention, on the other hand, evokes memories of the days when the Americans, using the ham-handed CIA, would buy Italian elections or simply overthrow elected governments they disliked, as in Haiti, Iran, Guatemala and Chile.
Third, and probably most serious, Beijing has compromised both Chinese citizens with Canadian connections and Canadians of Chinese descent. Thousands of Chinese students have studied in our colleges and universities; as tensions increase their hard-won Canadian degrees could make them suspect at home and their nationality could make them suspect here as well. Canadian and Chinese researchers will be unable to work together in either country.
Anti-Asian prejudice is as old as British Columbia itself. And as we saw in the pandemic, its origin in China was pretext enough for our anti-Asian bigots to assault people in the street. Now the bigots have another pretext for stigmatizing their fellow-citizens, and they’re sure to seize it.
In the days of the old Chinese empire that Xi Jinping is so eager to revive, China was a world unto itself, and the people beyond its borders looked at the empire as the source of wealth and wisdom. For that reason, the empire’s foreign affairs department was a small office known as “barbarian management.” What we have now is a case of barbarian mismanagement that has given China an American-sized case of blowback.
Xi Jinping may be in power for the rest of his life, but he will never live down this clumsy interference in our affairs.
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