Blair’s remarks marked a shift in the Liberal government’s public tone on the fentanyl issue and China’s role. When asked by The Epoch Times for comment in the past, Blair’s ministry made no mention of China, merely saying the government is “committed to doing everything we can” to address the drug crisis. This stood in contrast to calls by the Opposition Conservatives and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney for Ottawa to hold Beijing to account for the crisis.
Yet in his address at the parliamentary Canada-China relations committee on Feb. 25, Blair still refused to talk about Huawei and security concerns and whether the Chinese telecom giant with links to Beijing will be banned from Canada’s 5G networks.
“I’m obviously not going to talk about a specific company because our work is not relevant to a specific company, but rather to ensuring that we take the steps necessary to protect all Canadian interests,” he said in response to a question from a Conservative MP.
Blair’s carefully chosen words are consistent with the Liberals’ latest approach on the China file, where increasingly stronger language is used, but there are some lines that the government is not willing to cross.
Toward the end of last year, Trudeau began using stronger language when talking about China’s global conduct, in one case saying that Beijing uses “coercive diplomacy.” Previously, he would typically first tout the economic benefits China presents before expressing concern about the regime’s detention of Canadian citizens Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor.
The head of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service also recently said directly that China imposes a threat to Canada on “all fronts,” whereas previously the non-political organization more commonly talked in general terms about risks from foreign governments rather than pinpointing China, save for when referring to specific threats.
On the Hong Kong file, after Beijing’s clampdown on the pro-democracy demonstrators intensified, Canada stood out from other allies for its soft language, in one case urging “all sides involved in the crisis to exercise restraint.” That has changed of late, with Ottawa issuing more strongly worded statements against Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong.
But despite repeated calls by the opposition, the Liberals have so far not slapped any Magnitsky sanctions on those responsible for human rights violations in Hong Kong and China. Neither have they ruled out using Huawei in Canada’s 5G networks, in contrast to its allies in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, which have either already shut out Huawei or plan to eliminate it from their 5G networks. As well, the Liberal government has maintained Canada’s $250 million investment in China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
More recently, the Liberal cabinet abstained from voting on a parliamentary motion to declare Beijing’s actions against Uyghur Muslims a genocide. The motion was passed in a 266-0 unanimous vote by the MPs from all parties who voted including Liberal backbenchers.
“The Liberal government’s announcements most recently have been more aggressive in criticizing China. However, it’s mostly a rhetorical change. We’re still not seeing very much action,” Terry Russell, a senior scholar with the University of Manitoba’s Asian Studies Centre, told The Epoch Times.
Russell says the federal government’s change in tone is due to the fact that public opinion in Canada as well as internationally is increasingly turning against the Chinese regime, given its human rights abuses domestically and its outward hostility, such as the imprisonment of Canadian citizens. A Nanos survey released last month showed that only 3 percent of Canadians have a positive view of China as a partner for Canada, while 12 percent have a “somewhat positive” view.
“If the Liberal government is to maintain any kind of standing in the eyes of the public, it finds that it is absolutely necessary to speak out against some of these atrocities [in China],” Russell says.
But what explains the lack of meaningful action, he says, is that “fundamentally the Liberal Party is still very sympathetic to China, or at least to the amount of business that Canada is doing in China, and their vested interests within the Liberal Party.”
“They don’t want to see the relationship with China damaged,” he says, adding that another factor is concern for the safety of Kovrig and Spavor as well as other Canadian citizens living in China or Hong Kong.
Russell points to Australia as an example of a country that has stood up to China, such as passing legislation meant to curb the regime’s foreign interference or holding it accountable for the COVID-19 outbreak, even though it has suffered consequences to its export sector as well as harassment and even imprisonment of one of its citizens in China.
“They’re willing to stand up for their convictions. They deserve admiration,” he says.
Jacob Kovalio, an associate professor in the Department of History at Carleton University, says the vote on the Uyghur genocide declaration, where Liberal backbenchers were allowed to vote freely on the issue but the cabinet abstained, shows a political calculation by the Liberal government.
“This is a political move that is designed to satisfy both those who are fervently critical of the Uyghur situation … and at the same time sending the message to [the Chinese regime] that under the circumstances they are pursuing their traditional line of supporting China,” he says.
Besides business interests, another factor influencing the Liberal Party’s position on the China file is the legacy left by former prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Kovalio says.
Pierre Trudeau started relations with the Chinese Communist Party in the 1970s, which helped pave the way for other Western countries including the United States to establish diplomatic ties with the regime. Former Chinese consul-general in Toronto Chen Wenzhao once pointed to the elder Trudeau’s ideological leanings and noted that he intended to distance Canada’s China policy from that of the United States after taking office.
Kovalio says this legacy continued through the different Liberal governments, including that of Jean Chrétien—who reinvigorated ties with Beijing after the world had shunned it for its bloody Tiananmen Square massacre—and the current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“The baggage that the Liberal Party has goes back to Pierre Trudeau, and to Chrétien, and continues to this day,” he says.
Kovalio says China’s rise has not been a peaceful one as publicly stated by Beijing in years prior and repeated by some in the West, and notes that the business and political class should be held to account if they turn a blind eye to the implications of a more powerful China. He advises more vigilance in the face of Beijing’s latest tactics to lure politicians and the business class, including the EU-China investment deal signed at the turn of last year, and the regime’s use of investment incentives to derail plans by the United States and Japan to decouple from China.
“This is all a trick that [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping has done many times before, as have his predecessors,” he says.
Besides strategic and geopolitical considerations, there’s a major humanitarian aspect to the equation that should not be sidelined, Kovalio adds.
“There is the Uyghur humanitarian crime issue, [the persecution of] Tibetans, … and the Falun Gong issue and the organ harvesting that’s continuing,” he says.
“When you look at the bigger picture, how can you ignore what the Chinese [regime is] doing right now?”