Huawei's chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver. Photo: Reuters

How might the estimated five million ethnic Chinese people in America and the 1.8 million in Canada be impacted if war broke out between the United States and the People’s Republic of China?

I posed this question to Wang Gungwu, a renowned expert on China and the estimated 60 million ethnic Chinese people living around the world, during a visit to Singapore in February 2018. Amid unprecedented bilateral tensions, the prospect of military conflict between the two global powers, once regarded as remote, had become a hot topic of discussion among politicians, strategists and scholars.

Wang, chairman of the Singapore-based ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute, predicted without hesitation that some among the Chinese diaspora would be arrested and interned. Like the ethnic Japanese community in the US and Canada during the Second World War, the Chinese will also come under suspicion of harboring divided loyalties, exposing them to accusations of sympathizing or even supporting the enemy.

He said the internment of distinctly identifiable groups, seemingly unfair and extreme when viewed from the world in 2018, should not come as a surprise in times of war. Despite the belief that civil liberties are better protected today than back in the 1940s, he asserts that this dark piece of North American history will be repeated during war’s “extreme circumstances.”

“Those pushing for greater China ties with the US and Canada or seen as having strong links inside China are vulnerable, along with some from the more recent wave of migrants,” said the 88-year-old scholar who has lived through and studied modern China’s most tumultuous times since the Second World War.

Wang, who recently retired as chairman of the National University of Singapore’s East Asia Institute, predicted Canada would have a frontline role in the escalating Sino-US struggle for geopolitical and economic supremacy. And, it is proving to be so in the wake of the Huawei-triggered political crisis.

Acting on behalf of the US government according to a bilateral treaty for extraditing suspected criminals, Canadian police arrested Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecommunications giant and a daughter of its founder, in Vancouver last December.

The ensuing political turmoil has helped sharpen the nature of the US-China conflict. From the traditional disputes over trade deficits and manufacturing jobs, the tussle is now focused on the control of 5G telecommunications networks and artificial intelligence technology that will form the backbone of the world’s future economy and military.

Wang concluded his interview on a note of optimism that he did not believe war would occur between the US and China. Despite the weight of history of a rising power challenging the incumbent as spelled out in Graham Allison’s Thucydides Trap, he believes the two countries will work hard to build a new relationship and avoid an all-out war. Nevertheless, amid the continuing US-China tensions, the focus on the Chinese Question in both countries will grow.

The professor’s warnings came back as I reviewed the latest findings of the Canadian public’s attitude towards China in a just-released survey designed by Paul Evans and Li Xiaojun at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Evans is a professor of international relations specialising in Asia and the Director Emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research, while assistant professor Li teaches in the university’s political science department.

Canada-China relations, increasingly difficult in recent years owing to disagreements over human rights, economic and other issues, are in freefall in the aftermath of Meng’s arrest on December 1. Both sides have accused the other of being unfriendly and for failing to follow the rule of law.

On December 10, the Chinese government arrested two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – in China on suspicion of espionage. In March, China started disrupting, and may even have entirely stopped, the import of Canadian canola, a key revenue crop for its western provinces. Beijing has denied that these are acts of retaliation, triggering frustration in Ottawa and anger among Canadians.

“The overall level of negativity surrounding China is significant and growing,” the survey concluded from a sample of 1,161 adults between February 4 and 19. Only 22% of respondents have a favorable image of China, down 14 points from the previous comparative survey conducted by the two academics in October 2017. And, it has the potential to worsen, said Evans.

The calm measured voice of the veteran academic could not downplay the grim prospects expressed by 35% of the respondents who foresee that Canada-China relations “are in for long-term trouble.”

Evans believes China is likely preparing to inflict more pain on Canada. This, in turn, will further inflame anti-Beijing sentiments among Canadians.

Of concern is whether the Canadian public still supports the traditional engagement strategy that has served their country so well since Canada and China established diplomatic relations in 1970.

“Where we have reached a tipping point is not with the general public but with our elite class. Their position on China now ranges from negative to extremely negative,” said Evans

Canada’s “elite class” encompasses its politicians, decision-makers, military strategists, corporate executives, business owners, opinion leaders and commentators on national issues.

It marks a sea change in modern Canadian attitude towards China that the elite has so decisively turned against that country. Ironically, it has happened under the China-friendly Liberal Party government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He came to office in 2015 with the ambition to improve the troubled China file after nine years of conservative government rule under Stephen Harper. China has fond memories of Trudeau’s father, Pierre, who was Prime Minister when Canada became one of the first western countries to establish diplomatic ties with the communist regime.

Canada’s elite is disillusioned that China has made little progress to become a more open and liberal society as it grew wealthier since opening up to the world in 1979. Unlike the US, Canadians have generally preferred the low-key, behind-the-scenes approach to try to influence change in China. Neither strategy has apparently worked.

For now, the Canadian public seems not to share the elite’s dark mood. The survey found that 64% still support Canada’s efforts to pursue a free-trade agreement (FTA) with China. Down just five percentage points from the 2017 survey, Evans described this level of support as being still remarkably high given the tense state of bilateral relations.

“Even before the Meng Wanzhou affair, the wheels for an FTA were already falling off,” he observed. “But an FTA with PRC is highly unlikely even in the medium-term future.” For most Canadians, “the FTA has become a symbolic idea rather than a realistic proposal,” he said.

But this dreamy state may soon vanish as tensions between the two countries begin filtering down to the people level.

The Huawei crisis has likely accelerated a shift in Canadian public sentiments, influenced in part by regular news reports and TV images of ethnic Chinese people, some holding Canadian nationality, openly siding with Beijing in protest against Ottawa’s arrest of Meng. Many Chinese see her arrest as tantamount to an internment: a political act executed by the US through Canada to thwart Huawei’s growth, and by extension, China’s rise as a high-tech power.

Analyzing news commentaries in the Chinese-language and social media, discussions in chatrooms and online fora, and feedback from friends and contacts, Evans’ students found a high level of agreement among the Chinese community that blames Canada for having set off this latest crisis.

There is now ample fuel to feed the mutual negative feelings as Meng’s fight to stave off extradition to the US will likely drag on for years, coinciding with the bigger battle in Ottawa over whether to ban Huawei equipment from Canada’s 5G networks.

Both issues will add to anti-China sentiments built from years of sensational news reporting in the Canadian media that has unfairly blamed the Chinese diaspora and their capital for causing Metro Vancouver’s trio of problems of housing affordability, money laundering and the opioid crisis.

Limited options

Canada’s own nationalists are picking up the gauntlet. Well-known commentators are demanding that Ottawa “develop a backbone” to “deal with the gangsters in Beijing.

Evans says such responses to prove Canada’s masculinity will only create a downward cycle of mutual retaliation. Cooler strategic heads must prevail, and that does not mean capitulation to China’s demands or pursuing a policy of appeasement.

For a start, Canada must recognize that it has limited options to push back. Canada has been exposed for its inability to stop China’s rough treatment of Kovrig and Spavor held in unknown facilities since December 10. China only provides occasional updates about their well-being and has denied them access to lawyers.

Perhaps the survey’s most sobering and revealing finding was not about Canadians’ feelings toward China, but their allies.

Canadians’ opinion of its major allies – the US, United Kingdom, France, Japan and India – has plunged in between the two surveys over a span of less than 18 months. The percentage of Canadians with a favorable opinion of the US is down from 52% in late 2017 to 36% in early 2019, while 77% feel good about the UK today compared with 87% previously. Over the same period, Canadians’ affection for France has fallen from 83% to 67%, Japan’s favourability is at 66%, down from 81%, and India’s is 35%, compared with 44%.

There are fears that the increasingly unreliable US under President Donald Trump may even sacrifice Canada to make a trade deal with China.

Canadians’ view of seven major countries, 2017 vs 2019. Source: Paul Evans and Li Xiaojun, UBC, 2019

“There is not a sophisticated package of ideas to deal with China now,” said Evans. Its foreign policy in disarray, the Trudeau government is reduced to navigating China on a case-by-case, issue-by-issue basis.

Officials are looking to restrict Chinese access to Canadian universities and technology largely in response to US pressure on allies to reduce their collaboration with China.

“We’re debating whether we should be putting restrictions on Chinese students in areas of national security,” said Evans. This covers subjects and research in the hard sciences, broadly known as Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).

“It’s already happening in the US, and already happened in Australia where certain categories of studies and subfields within certain disciplines are out of bounds for Chinese students.”

Relationships with Chinese universities covering collaborations and joint research work and exchange of scholars and visiting professors are also under scrutiny.

Guy Saint-Jacques, a former Canadian ambassador to China, has suggested expelling Chinese athletes training in Calgary for the next Winter Olympics and complaining to the UN Security Council about Beijing.

Some opinion makers want Canada to join the US in confronting China at every possible level: militarily, politically and economically.

China’s President Xi Jinping may or may not lose sleep over whether Canada, a medium power nation with a population of less than 38 million, will follow through on any of these measures. The group that should be most concerned is the Chinese diaspora in North America.

In February 2018, FBI director Christopher Wray laid the political argument for what could turn out to be a broad targeting of the Chinese diaspora in the US if bilateral relations turn hostile.

‘Whole of society’

In his testimony to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, he warned that China posed “not just a whole of government threat, but a whole of society threat.” He spoke specifically of Chinese professors, scientists and students in US academia as an immediate source of threat in their role as “non-traditional collectors” of technology, research and intelligence to help China build up its economy and military. The “whole of society” concept is noteworthy as it implies the Chinese threat extends beyond academia to every part of American society.

At the same hearing, Daniel R. Coats, Director of National Intelligence (DNI), said China along with Russia were spreading their influence to “further democratic decline” around the world.

President Xi himself has fuelled suspicion that Chinese nationals abroad as well as members of the diaspora are being tapped to further his goal of making China into a global superpower.

In February 2017, Xi instructed his government “to unite the overseas Chinese and returned overseas Chinese” to help in “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.”

At the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in October 2017, he announced: “We will maintain extensive contacts with overseas Chinese nationals, returned Chinese and their relatives and unite them so that they can join our endeavors to revitalize the Chinese nation.”

If the idea gains traction that China poses a whole-of-society threat, it could open up for consideration the arrest and internment of members of the Chinese diaspora in the US and Canada. Even though the Second World War had set the precedent, any talk of internment today would mark a new dimension in the escalating confrontation between China and the West. It is in this context that the arrests and uncertain fates of Meng in Canada, and Kovrig and Spavor in China take on added significance.

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