The media waits outside one of Meng Wanzhou's houses in Vancouver on December 12, 2018. In contrast, two Canadians are being held in undisclosed prisons in China with little if any contact with family or diplomats. Photo: AFP/Jason Redmond

Amid worsening relations between Canada and China, a parliamentary committee in Ottawa has cited Chinese spies and agents as major threats to Canadian security.

The report notes evidence of campaigns by the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Works Department to influence Canadian politicians “to adopt pro-China positions.” This, says the report, is being done by making donations to political parties and by marshaling pressure groups, especially those created by the United Front among the Chinese diaspora in Canada.

At the same time, Chinese police and security agents have been caught “operating without permission to persuade or coerce Chinese fugitives to return to China.”

Although the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and individual senior Canadian officials have been warning for at least 20 years of campaigns of influence and intimidation in Canada by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), this is the first time a parliamentary committee has acknowledged the problem.

‘Hostage taking’

The report of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians was published on Tuesday as Canada marked four months since two Canadians were detained by Beijing authorities in what is widely seen in Canada as hostage taking.

Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor were detained soon after Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei Technologies, was arrested in Vancouver in compliance with an international extradition warrant issued by the United States Department of Justice.

Washington accuses Meng of helping banks to skirt US sanctions against Iran. She is under house arrest, with only a nighttime curfew, at one of the several multi-million dollar houses she owns in Vancouver. Her court case is expected to get underway in May.

In contrast, Kovrig and Spavor are being held in undisclosed prisons. They have had no contact with their families or lawyers and have been allowed only one brief interview a month with Canadian diplomats.

Even so, the information has been communicated that they are being subjected to the torture of sleep deprivation by having the lights constantly on in their cells and are being interrogated for several hours every day.

Kevin Garratt, a Canadian café owner in northern China, was detained in 2014 and held for two years under similar circumstances after Canada detained an accused Beijing spy. Garratt has described the conditions under which the two Michaels are likely being held and said he was tortured by being strapped to a “tiger chair” while being interrogated.

One of the grim ironies of the situation is that as a diplomat posted in Canada’s embassy in Beijing, Kovrig worked on the Garratt case, and tried to secure his release.

Canadian officials believe Kovrig and Spavor are being subjected to the same torture. Both have been charged with espionage by Beijing, and the expectation is that the torture is aimed at extracting confessions.

The Meng Affair has created the worst crisis in relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China since mutual diplomatic recognition in 1970. But the effect is especially profound in Canada where political, business and academic elites believed there was a special relationship based on genuine friendship for Canada among the top echelons of the Chinese Communist Party.

Gaining influence

That delusion is the result of an extraordinarily successful campaign of “elite capture” mounted by CCP agencies, especially agents of influence and groups founded by the United Front Works Department over the last 70 years or so.

The whole story is set out in my book published in February, Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada.

The campaign generated an overly benign and unsuspecting attitude towards Beijing and the CCP among Canada’s political, official, academic and business decision-makers. That has allowed CCP agencies to influence Canadian politics, obtain access to Canadian resources and patented technologies, take almost complete editorial control over Canadian Chinese language media and to be able to send Ministry of State Security agents to Canada to intimidate Canadian citizens who Beijing considers to be dissidents.

The kidnapping of the two Michaels, and especially Kovrig who is a highly respected diplomat on secondment to the International Crisis Group, has shattered that illusion. It has also confronted Canadian officials and politicians with the reality that their perpetually rosy view of relations with the CCP means they have no leverage now things have gone seriously sour.

That impotence has become more vivid as Beijing has attempted to increase the pressure to release Meng by applying economic sanctions.

Beijing has now banned the importation of canola oil seed from Canada. Chinese authorities claim recent shipments of canola have been infested with pests. But no one in Canada believes that.

Beijing’s move is seen as another strike in the Meng Affair, and it has heightened the realization that Canada has allowed itself to become unnecessarily vulnerable to economic attacks by Beijing.

The canola ban is a serious economic blow because the sales make up about a quarter of all Canada’s C$20 billion exports to China, and about 40% of all Canada’s trade in the oil seeds.

This is causing alarm and uncertainty among canola seed farmers, who are mostly in the prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. There is little doubt this will have an effect on October’s general election, while Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Liberals are trailing the Conservative Party in public opinion polls.

The chill factor

While Canada is nowhere near as dependant on trade with China as are some other Pacific Rim countries, such as Australia, further economic sanctions by Beijing could have serious effects.

For example, 737,000 tourists from China visited Canada last year, which was up 6% from 2017. The 682,000 Chinese visitors in 2017 were an increase of 12% over 2016.

This industry has grown dramatically since the less than 200,000 Chinese visitors in 2010, when Beijing gave Canada “Approved Destination Status.” Withdrawal of this status would close down the sector immediately.

The hostage-taking of the two Michaels and the associated action against convicted Canadian drug trafficker Robert Schellenberg, who has had his imprisonment upped to a death sentence, has chilled many Canadians used to visiting China.

Reports that Chinese authorities are tracking and monitoring more than 100 Canadians in China in preparation for taking more hostages has made many Canadian business people and academics think twice about visiting China.

Advice about what to do now to retaliate against Beijing has come from one of Canada’s recently retired ambassadors, Guy Saint-Jacques. He has urged Ottawa to “take the white gloves off.”

Saint-Jacques suggests Canada should expel Chinese athletes training there for the 2022 Winter Olympics. He goes on to urge that Chinese officials posted to Canada should have their movements restricted, support for Canada’s Asian allies such as Japan and Taiwan should be intensified and Canada should lodge a formal protest with the United Nations Security Council over the treatment of the two Michaels.

As polls consistently show, Canadians as a whole are far more suspicious about the relationship with Beijing than are the country’s establishment decision-makers. So Ottawa may resist taking off the gloves.

But with the election approaching and Kovrig and Spavor still being held hostage and Canadians of Chinese heritage being the targets of intimidation in Canada, the stage is set for the future of Canada-China relations to become an increasingly hot issue.

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