At a time when concern is rising in various parts of the globe that Chinese overseas investment and migration may not be benign, the latest book by Jonathan Manthorpe looks timely.
Published in January, Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada, alleges the malign influence of a muscle-flexing Beijing over the business, political, media and academic circles of the North American nation.
The book appeared in the midst of an ongoing spat between Beijing and Ottawa that followed the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wangzhou in Canada, and the subsequent arrests of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in China. It is widely believed that the Korvig and Spavor arrests were retaliations for Meng’s detention.
Though a Canadian by birth, the author sounding the alarm bells has been based in Europe, Africa, and Hong Kong, reporting for the Toronto Star and the Southam News. Now back in Canada, his focus continues to be on the wider world, with a specialization in things Sinic: his previous book was Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan.
Now a columnist for Asia Times, Manthorpe recently shared his thoughts and findings from his latest book, and his wider concerns about the rise of the People’s Republic of China and its leadership, the Chinese Communist Party.
Beijing vs Ottawa
“Canada is importing corruption along with money” from China, Manthrope maintains – though he adds that China-related corruption has a long history in Canada. The difference today is one of scale.
“There is a distinction between the political corruption in Canada that created and benefited from the investor immigrant program of the 1980s, which I describe in some detail, and the corruption that has accompanied the vast amounts of money brought into Canada by the ‘Red Aristocracy,’” he said.
“I had hoped the distinction in size and in kind would be evident between Canada’s homegrown corruption and the triffid-like monstrosity that has grown out of the CCP royalty’s use of Canada as a money-laundering center in the last two decades or so.”
Claws of the Panda documents a confluence of corruption among politicians, businesses, casinos, organized crime and ordinary Chinese citizens. “At the core of the CCP’s campaign here, and in other target countries like Australia and New Zealand, has been what is known in shorthand as ‘elite capture,’” he said.
“There has been, and is, a strong element of corruption of Canadian establishment figures in that campaign.”
So can the corruption of the elites, the wealthy, and the politically-connected be separated from the day-to-day mindset of average Chinese-Canadians? They can.
“Hundreds of thousands of people have come to Canada from Hong Kong and mainland China without having to use corrupt channels, or to find it necessary to make corruption a tool of their daily lives,” Manthorpe said.
“For the most part, Canadians of Chinese heritage lead ordinary Canadian lives, working hard … trying to ensure that their children have better opportunities and lives than they have, and being thankful that they live in a country where – by-and-large – the government can be depended on to see their role as providing services for and protecting the citizenry.”
The bad actors, he stresses, are the elite, but it is the elite who – due to their wealth and status – are the most visible. This visibility is to some extent due to dubious activity that does not stop at political corruption.
It is “exhibited in property purchases, expensive cars, behavior at casinos, obscene displays of wealth at public occasions, attempts to use bribery at private schools and universities, and the keeping of several households with concubines.” Manthorpe said.
The author paints a portrait of a deeply dysfunctional symbiosis between Canada and China. His book includes occasional references to offshore financial havens such as the Virgin Islands and the Caymans; it seems that Canada is now seen as a similar vector for laundering money and hiding business deals.
Manthorpe also depicts Canada as “the stalking horse for Washington.” It would appear Canada, thanks to its location, is emerging as a way for the PRC to launder its political ambitions through what many in the world view as a “clean” government in Ottawa, and a friendly and open society in Canada overall. And in addition to leveraging Canada’s cultural and geographical proximity to the US, Beijing also leverages Canadian prejudices.
“I think on some occasions the CCP has used both Canada’s closeness to the US to Beijing’s advantage, and has also understood and used Canadian antipathy towards the US for its own ends,” he said.
Beijing vs Washington
Still, as a critic of populists, Manthorpe is unconvinced that US President Donald Trump’s verbal and tariff assault on Beijing will make much difference to either the long game or the big picture.
“I don’t think either Trump’s tough talk with Beijing or the actions of the ideologues will have any beneficial results in either Washington’s relationship with Beijing or the CCP’s view of the world in general,” he said.
In fact, Trumpian policy, with its focus on economics and “America First,” is weakening key mechanisms that have the potential to strategically contain China. Related risks may be particularly high in the flashpoint South and East China Seas.
“The big danger I see at the moment, and one that makes a conflict more likely in my view, is that we have a US administration that does not seem to be dependable in its alliances,” he said.
“With the PRC rampant and neighboring Asian nations unsure whether they can trust Washington to honor its security treaty obligations, we have a dangerous situation where mistakes can easily happen.”
Beijing vs Japan
While the book offers a wealth of information on various politicians and groups in Canada who provide sluices for PRC influence infiltration into North America, the author also researched how the CCP spreads anti-Japan and anti-US propaganda in Canada as a way to weaken the US-Japan alliance, and to keep South Korea and Japan at daggers drawn.
However, some passages related to the United Front Work Department of the CCP’s Central Committee – the body that manages relations with various individuals and organizations that are not party entities, but which hold social, commercial, or academic influence, or which represent interest groups – was excised by editorial guillotine.
“In the first draft of the manuscript there was quite a bit about the efforts of the various UFWD operations here to attack Japan, using both the Nanking Massacre and comfort women as agencies,” he said.
One such case covered a suburban Vancouver council. The local government body was persuaded to allow the erection of a statue to “The World’s Women” – which turned out to be comfort women propaganda. The Japanese consul-general in Vancouver managed to get that rejected.
“The ability to attack Japan and Japanese interests in Canada is one of the important aspects of the infiltration and influence-peddling of the CCP,” he noted.
Beijing: Dominant or doomed?
Manthorpe ends his book with the hope that the authoritarian regime in Beijing will “shatter.”
Yet that looks – from present vantage – to be a very vain hope. The One Belt, One Road initiative is advancing across the globe, suggesting that, far from weakening, Beijing is very successfully deploying capital and selling its system as a viable alternative to Western-led liberal democracy.
So how fragile, really, is the PRC?
“The point I was trying to make with my ‘shatter’ image was that we can never quite be sure how brittle the CCP regime really is,” he explained. “With the end of the Soviet Union and the Arab Spring we have seen several totalitarian states disappear overnight. I would suggest that the CCP’s fixation on the collapse of the Soviet Union indicates that it, too, is unsure of how firmly it is in power.”
This paranoia is reflected in the vigor with which state agencies are executing policies designed to forestall any such outcome. Beijing “has been brutal in its destruction of anybody that emerges, especially since 1989, that might become a national organization,” he said.
Meanwhile, the CCP is marshaling new formats of Chinese power. In an age when Beijing’s lack of soft power has been scoffed at, the CCP – the same body that executed the “Cultural Revolution” – is now promoting itself as the custodian of traditional Chinese culture. “I think the edifice of Chinese culture and history gives the PRC a stability, even in an authoritarian state, that other regimes have not had,” he said.
But a huge risk also lies at the very heart of Sinic legacies. “There has never been a peaceful transfer of power between Chinese dynasties that I am aware of,” the author warned.
Follow Jonathan Manthorpe’s columns in Asia Times here.