Q: What kind of calculations determined President Xi’s decision to impose the new security bill in Hong Kong and why is it being implemented now?
A: I think it’s the distraction of the pandemic. [China] is hoping to get away with this while the world is focused elsewhere. Last year they probably decided that they would have to act directly. They could no longer trust Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Right now seems as good a time as any to act directly. They’re prepared to pay a price for it. They don’t care, this is a security issue for them. Just as they would go to war and attack Taiwan if they felt that Taiwan was drifting away. China will pay a heavy price for intervening in Hong Kong, but they’re prepared to pay it.
China tried [this] years ago in 2003. What they proposed then was terrible, but less terrible than what it’s proposing now in 2020. Since ‘03 we’ve seen a steady buildup of popular opposition in Hong Kong, culminating in last year’s protests, which shook Beijing to its core. The popular opposition brought Hong Kong to a standstill. This widespread popular protest was reflected in the results of the district level elections and contributed to Beijing’s loss of faith in Carrie Lam.
Q: The Canadian government has suspended extraditions to Hong Kong and will restrict sensitive exports. In your view is this the right set of actions? Can and should Canada do more?
A: We don’t do punishment or reprisals very well. I’m proud of us for that. It’s just not in our nature. We have to design policy that reacts to real situations—changing the extradition provisions does just that. Beijing’s new security law is like saltwater fouling the freshwater. The Chinese legal system is penetrating Hong Kong’s system to the extent that there could be renditions to China, the imposition of Chinese judges, and all kinds of things that strip Hong Kong citizens of their human and legal rights. Its no longer appropriate to think about extraditing people into that system. The same goes for shipping military or police equipment. As a result, Canada has determined that it is no longer appropriate given the extent to which the Hong Kong police have been infiltrated and corrupted.
The U.S indicated it would apply Magnitsky sanctions against people who have been identified in Xinjiang—that’s worth noting. It makes sense that the next step would be to target people engaged in human rights violations in Hong Kong. It is a step Canada can and should consider. I think a more practical step, for now, is to provide a fast-track to immigrants from Hong Kong, similar to what the UK and Australia are doing.
Q: Justice Louise Arbour recently suggested that Canada should end the extradition process in the case of Meng Wanzhou as a means to liberate the “Two Michaels”? PM Justin Trudeau has publicly stated he will do no such thing. What, in your view, is the right way to proceed? And what role does the US have in facilitating a way out of the dispute?
A: We seem to be treating what’s happened as if it’s normal. Canadians are so eager to preserve our relationship with China that they won’t call what’s happened kidnapping. This is the second time they’ve done it to us in five years. If another country did this, we would tell Canadians to exercise extreme caution when going to that country. We should be very honest about the risks. We need to reduce our exposure, tell Canadians that they travel to China at their own risk, and be honest with them that there’s not a lot we can do if something happens to them.
I don’t agree with what Justice Arbour said in her letter. Former Chief of Staff Eddie Goldenberg said something similar many months ago. It is as if otherwise smart people keep discovering and rediscovering how kidnapping works. The idea is, if we pay this ransom, we get our people back. The Justice Minister can decide to do that, but the question is whether we should do that.
What China has done leaves us with no good options. Paying a ransom isn’t an option, but there is no easy way of getting the Michaels out if we don’t pay a ransom. We should expect China to do the hard thinking, not us. We have to keep pressuring China; we have to keep Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor front and centre in our interventions with China, and we have to ask our allies to help us.
The Americans and Mike Pompeo, in particular, have done a pretty good job in this regard. We should be talking to countries who have experienced hostage diplomacy, like Australia, Sweden, and the UK to see if we can take collective action.
Q: The tensions between the West and China have been escalating for some time. Where does Canada, as a middle power, fit in? if you were asked to make recommendations to PM Trudeau on Canada’s strategy with regard to China, what would they be?
A: I would have modest expectations about Canada’s ability to carry off a strategy. I would be more modest and focus first on being clear in our thinking about what China is, where it’s going, and what its likely intentions are vis-a-vis a country like Canada. If we do this effectively, it would make clear that China is an increasingly adversarial state that sees Canada as a rather unimportant country.
Canada is however relevant in Chinese thinking due to its proximity to the United States. We are a key member of the U.S alliance, so splitting Canada away is of some advantage to China.
Until the Prime Minister is clear in his thinking about China and its intentions, no real change is possible. I say that for two reasons. First, because any profound change in foreign policy must be led by the Prime Minister. Second, I think the Prime Minister has struggled in this regard. [Trudeau] famously said, and apologized, for saying, that he admired China’s basic dictatorship. What is more shocking to me though, is that he went to China two years ago guided by a firm belief that he could negotiate a “progressive free trade deal” with Beijing, aspects of which would require China to change its society in ways that China would never accept. The idea that any country could get China to make fundamental changes to its internal governance is ludicrous. There is a naivety about China that must disappear, or no profound policy change is possible.
Our most recent ambassadors have also been touched by this naivety. In my opinion, John McCallum’s ambassadorship imploded because of it. Dominic Barton is more sophisticated, but he is, if possible, more bullish on China.
But even if this thinking changes, we still need to think about how to execute policy. Ottawa is full of people who are keenly interested in policy formulation and development, but not in policy implementation. Nobody wants to discuss the machinery of government.
We also need to think in news ways about delivering disciplined, integrated, and coherent China policy across government that furthers Canadian interests and protects us from the negative aspects of China’s rise. And we need to think about how to measure success effectively.
I would write specific China deliverables in the mandate letters of the Foreign Affairs, Public Safety, Trade, and maybe Agriculture ministers and make those things transparent to Canadians. But the Prime Minister needs to own the China file and be responsible for its successful implementation.
Getting China “right” is important, and this pushes us in the direction of real foreign policy. Traditionally, real foreign policy has been less important to us, because much of what a foreign policy is designed to achieve has been achieved through our relationship with the U.S. But this is changing.
China is the first big test of a new era where the U.S is more distant, more distracted. This is something that was beginning to be evident even the Obama administration. But we weren’t paying attention. We now may be hearing what amounts to a final wakeup call. We have to get right because getting it right is important in itself, but also prepares us for the challenges of a changing world.