Last Tuesday, the morning after a Chinese court upheld a death sentence against Robert Schellenberg, a Canadian convicted of smuggling over 200 kilograms of methamphetamine in 2018, Conservative Party Leader Erin O’Toole ticked off a laundry list of political grievances against China.
Schellenberg’s case was front and centre. “The denial of Robert Schellenberg’s appeals must be seen for what it is,” O’Toole told reporters at a press conference, days before Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially announced the federal election campaign. “A foreign government planning to take the life of a Canadian for political reasons.”
Relations have soured between Canada and China in recent years. Bickering over human rights abuses against China’s Uyghur Muslim population in Xinjiang, the arrest of several Canadians by Chinese authorities on drug smuggling and national security charges, and the ongoing extradition battle over Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou have been a source of tension in both countries.
Experts told VICE World News that animosity towards Beijing could be a useful tool for the Conservatives during an election that will probably focus on the Liberal government’s COVID-19 response.
The Conservative Party’s recently unveiled policy platform talks a lot about China as a country with poor environmental standards, an oppressive government, and little regard for international law. “The communist leadership represents a clear and rising threat to Canadian interests—and our values,” the party’s platform says. “They’ve abducted our citizens, targeted our economy, and intimidated members of the Chinese Canadian community.”
Foreign policy is rarely top of mind for voters, but Canada and China’s relationship is critical. In 2020, Canada imported roughly $71 billion in goods from China alone, according to UN data, and 1.8 million Canadians identified themselves as having Chinese ancestry in the 2016 census. For Chinese Canadians, a tough stance on Beijing could have very real consequences. Rates of anti-Asian racism, including violent acts, have been at record highs since the COVID-19 pandemic began—and tough rhetoric on the campaign trail could fan the flames.
Canada’s relationship with China has been mostly smooth over the past 50 years with the major exception of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989. But current President Xi Jinping decided to take a more assertive approach to foreign policy. “From China’s perspective, it wants to take its rightful place in the international stage,” said Yun Jiang, director of the China Policy Centre. “As it becomes more powerful, it has expanding interests, which necessarily means they’ll be more conflict with the existing status quo powers” like the United States and its allies, including Canada.
Much of the most recent disputes between Canada and China, however, stems from Canada’s decision to arrest Meng at Vancouver International Airport in December 2018. She was accused by U.S. prosecutors of using an unofficial subsidiary called Skycom to do business in Iran, a move that would violate U.S. trade sanctions against the Middle Eastern country. Beijing has repeatedly demanded her release, while the Canadian government insists the extradition proceedings against her are out of its hands. An initial decision in Meng’s case is expected to be announced this fall.
Within days of Meng’s arrest, Chinese officials had arrested Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig on espionage charges. Spavor was a businessman involved in tourism, while Kovrig was an ex-diplomat working as a researcher for the International Crisis Group in Beijing. Just one day after Schellenberg lost his death sentence appeal, a Chinese court sentenced Spavor to 11 years in prison for espionage.
While a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson recently told Reuters anyone who links Schellenberg and Meng’s cases “have ulterior motives,” Jiang said Chinese officials frequently mention the two cases together. “It’s quite clear that China is holding these two Canadian citizens as hostages in retaliation for the arrest of Meng,” she said.
There is also reason to believe Schellenberg’s death sentence may be linked to Meng’s arrest. Emile Dirks, a doctorate candidate at the University of Toronto who studies drug policy and human rights in China, said it isn’t unusual for Chinese courts to hand down death sentences for drug trafficking or manufacturing, but Schellenberg’s sentence was changed from 15 years in prison to death during a one-day appeal trial in 2019—something Dirks believes is impermissible under Chinese law.
As all of these cases are unfolding, news about China’s state repression of its Uyghur population in Xinjiang, including the use of forced sterilization and internment, is trickling out. Canada’s House of Commons voted in February to call Beijing’s actions in Xinjiang against Uyghurs and other Turkic Muslims a genocide, a label Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin denied later that day. “This is the lie of the century made up by extremely anti-China forces,” he told reporters.
China went on to accuse Canada of hypocrisy over its treatment of Indigenous peoples in the residential school system. According to Al Jazeera, a Chinese official called for the UN Human Rights Council to investigate the discovery of the 200 graves found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School in June. (In response, Canada tabled its own statement calling for an investigation into allegations of the mass detention of Uyghur Muslims.)
Amid this backdrop is the upcoming federal election. “Given that there’s going to be an election here in Canada in September, it’s been fairly clear that they’re tying the trial of the two Michaels to both the trial of Meng and Canada’s domestic politics,” Dirks said.
Will it matter on the campaign trail?
While Trudeau’s Liberals have been in government for much of the recent tensions with China, it is the Conservatives under O’Toole that are pushing a harder line with Beijing.
The day after Schellenberg’s death sentence was upheld, O’Toole suggested to reporters that Canada should consider boycotting the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. We’ll have to think long and hard on whether we reward a country like that with the Games,” O’Toole said in a video of the press conference.
In their platform, the Conservatives want Canada to decouple key parts of the country’s supply chain from China, deepen its military and economic alliance with the U.S. in response to China’s interest in the Arctic, and revoke the licences of Chinese state-run broadcasters in Canada. One proposal even includes banning senior public office holders, including former prime ministers, from working or consulting for the Chinese government or any entities it controls.
Eric Merkley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto, said there are a few reasons for a Conservative leader to call for a more aggressive stance on China. For a portion of the political right—but not everyone, Merkley stressed—“racial animus” against Asians could also be appealing. Others might oppose the Chinese government for its crackdown on religious groups. Regardless of the exact reason, Merkley said, O’Toole needs to rally his base without driving a rift between rival factions of the party. “He doesn’t risk alienating a lot of people by taking such a stance,” he said.
Except Merkley thinks a hardline stance could backfire on O’Toole. For the Conservatives to win the next election, he said, they would need to win highly populated and diverse electoral ridings in the 905 suburban cities like Vaughan and Markham, just outside Toronto. “If there’s a backlash to that act, it’s electorally perilous for him,” he said.
As for the Liberals, Merkley doesn’t think they stand to gain from a hardline stance at all. “Why would you want to talk about that issue when the Liberals could be talking about their successful COVID-19 vaccines and economic recovery and all sorts of other things that people care way more about?” he said.
The way Canadian politicians talk about China could endanger Chinese Canadians at a time when they’re already facing a spike in racist attacks. A report from the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto chapter released earlier this year found 1,150 cases of racist attacks against Asian Canadians between March 2020 and February 2021. Physical assaults specifically shot up by over 50 percent from the start of the pandemic until last September, although three-quarters of all the attacks documented in the report were insults, slurs, or threats.
“Historically and in the current context, especially during the pandemic, has really highlighted the fact that Chinese Canadians are seen as foreigners,” said Amy Go, president of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice. Chinese Canadians who’ve never lived anywhere except Canada are still often told to “go back to China,” she said. “You can be in the best relationship with China—we will still be seen as outsiders.”
Merkley said taking a hard stance on China on the campaign trail this election could potentially run the risk of attracting more violence or hatred. “Even if you come at it from a principled stance on your skepticism towards what the regime has done in China and their role with COVID, it can be used to activate sentiment among folks that you probably don’t want to be associated with,” he said.
Soothing the relationship between Canada and China will be the task of whoever wins the next federal election—and it won’t be easy. Go said Canadians can demand better of both Ottawa and Beijing.
“The Canadian government should be upholding our international obligations and protecting the rights of Canadians regardless of where they are,” Go said. “It is the responsibility of Canadian governments—as Chinese Canadians, we hold them accountable. At the same time, we also hold our Canadian government accountable and responsible for combating anti-Asian racism.”
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