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Huawei CFO awakens Canadians to the long, strong arm of China

Natalie Obiko Pearson, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Huawei Technologies Co.'s chief financial officer returns to a Vancouver courtroom Monday to fight extradition as Canadian voters deliberate who's best suited to helm an unprecedented confrontation with China over her plight.

Meng Wanzhou's arrest has plunged Canada's relationship with its second-biggest trading partner into its darkest period since establishing diplomatic ties in 1970 -- with almost no hope of a detente. Navigating that will be one of the thorniest challenges for whoever wins next month's federal election.

The incumbent prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has resisted any attempt to interfere in the extradition proceedings, saying the rule of law will govern Meng's case. But as he fights to secure a second term, he confronts the dismal reality that his country's five-decade policy of engaging with China failed when it was needed most.

Just days after Meng was detained on a U.S. extradition request, China threw two Canadians into jail on spying allegations, then later put another two on death row, and halted nearly C$5 billion ($3.8 billion) worth of Canadian agricultural imports. Pro-Beijing supporters have escalated their harassment of Canadians linked to Tibet, Uighur, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activism, bringing to the fore long-standing allegations of China's meddling, and there are mounting concerns about Ottawa's vulnerability to espionage.

"Canadians recognize that we cannot have a strategic relationship with China of the sort that Mr. Trudeau's government initially was seeking," said Richard Fadden, who served from 2015 to 2016 as national security adviser to both the Liberal prime minister and his Conservative predecessor, Stephen Harper.

A decade ago, Fadden caused an uproar when -- as head of the national spy agency -- he sounded an alarm on China, saying lobbyists operating out of its diplomatic missions were funding pro-Beijing cultural centers known as Confucius Institutes. He also said at least two provincial ministers and some municipal politicians in British Columbia -- home to the highest proportion of ethnic Chinese in Canada -- were believed to be under the sway of a foreign government. A backlash ensued, with a parliamentary committee demanding his resignation. A decade later, those comments appear prescient: New Brunswick is shutting down Confucius Institutes at 28 schools after the provincial education minister called their curriculum "propaganda." Last October, three British Columbia municipalities, including Vancouver, investigated allegations of vote buying after a pro-Beijing group offered a C$20 "transportation allowance" to encourage voting for ethnic-Chinese candidates.

 

Meng's case and the fallout from it has forced Canadians to "wake up," according to Gao Bingchen, whose column in one of Canada's biggest Chinese-language newspapers was abruptly canceled in 2016 after he criticized a Chinese official on social media. "Canadians are starting to consider: What price do we need to pay to keep what we call a good relationship with China? Can we afford it?"

The Chinese consul general in Vancouver, Tong Xiaoling, was unavailable for an interview. This summer, the consulate dismissed allegations of meddling in Canada's internal affairs as "groundless and irresponsible." Meanwhile, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa has called Meng's arrest politically motivated and accused Canada of "arbitrary detention." It rejects any suggestion the arrest of the two Canadians -- former diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor -- was in retaliation for Meng's detention, saying China is also a rule-of-law country.

Canada has been reticent to confront signs of Beijing's long arm extending into politics and civil society, much less take action like Australia, which introduced sweeping laws last year against foreign interference aimed at reducing Chinese meddling in national affairs. In part, that's because Canada has failed to appreciate its desirability as a target given that it swaps intelligence with the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand as part of the Five Eyes alliance, according to Fadden.

That complacency may have just come to an end. On Sept. 13, Canada charged a top intelligence official in its national police force with leaking secrets under a rarely used national security law. Cameron Ortis, director general of the national intelligence center for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, had access to intelligence from Canada's international allies, Commissioner Brenda Lucki said last week in a statement.A court decision on Meng's extradition isn't expected until at least late 2020, and history shows most such cases end with a handover. Meanwhile, the stakes continue to rise. China stopped buying Canadian canola in March after importing some C$2.7 billion worth in 2018, according to rapeseed industry figures. Meat producers, meanwhile, say the cost of Beijing's suspension of Canadian pork and beef imports since June is already approaching C$100 million.

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