Last December, in an end-of-year interview with Global News, Justin Trudeau said that China has been “very cleverly playing” democratic countries against each other and that the time has come for the West to “do a better job of working together and standing strong so that China can’t . . . play the angles and divide us.”
The prime minister was referring mainly to trade tactics, and his assessment of China’s behaviour isn’t particularly surprising: other powerful countries have sometimes acted in the same way. The comments were noteworthy, however, because they indicated a change in Ottawa’s tone and approach toward China. This shift would have been inconceivable when Trudeau came to power in 2015 and probably still inconceivable as little as two years ago, when Canada sent many tonnes of personal protective equipment to China at the start of the COVID‑19 pandemic. However, as Trudeau noted in the same interview, the country we are dealing with is “no longer the China that we thought about ten years ago or even five years ago.” He’s right, of course, but it’s taken him a little longer than others to realize or admit that fact.
China’s rise is the most important geopolitical event of the early twenty-first century. As the noted Harvard political scientist Graham Allison has observed, “Never before in history has a nation risen so far, so fast, on so many dimensions of power.” For about thirty years — starting in 1979, when it began to loosen state controls over its economy — Beijing employed a so‑called hide-and-bide approach. “Hide your capacities and bide your time,” Deng Xiaoping, the former paramount leader, said in 1990, citing an old proverb. That period is over. The current general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, is the most powerful leader since Mao Zedong, and he seems to have decided that China should at last shed two centuries of weakness in the face of Western (and Japanese) power and retake its historic position of centrality in global affairs.
This decision has led to a more aggressive posture internationally and a more assertive government at home. If the great hope of the 1990s and early 2000s was that China could be accommodated within the postwar liberal global order led by the United States, today’s more pessimistic reality is an increasingly adversarial approach to the country’s upsurge.
“China’s growing authoritarianism and coercive diplomacy are challenges shared by democracies around the world,” Marc Garneau said in a speech last year, when he was still minister of foreign affairs. And as its power and influence grow, lines are being drawn, though it may be premature to declare, as some pundits have, that a new cold war has begun. For one thing, there is no clear ideological struggle between China and the West. For another, there is enormous integration between their economies. Third, there hasn’t been — yet — the same type of proxy military competition that we saw between the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. in the second half of the twentieth century. Nevertheless, as David Sanger has pointed out in the New York Times, “China is emerging as a far broader strategic adversary than the Soviet Union ever was — a technological threat, a military threat, an economic rival.”
Whether we like it or not, middle powers, including Canada, are having to decide where they stand in regard to this triple threat. That necessity undoubtedly played a part in Trudeau’s recent remarks.
Beyond these geopolitical considerations, events close to home have also soured Canada’s relationship with Beijing. In China Unbound, the Toronto Star ’s Joanna Chiu offers extensive reporting on the country’s influence operations here and around the world. She aptly illustrates how it has turned more authoritarian and confrontational rather than liberalizing as it has grown richer and more confident. “I wanted to be in China to chronicle its rapid economic development and help people around the world understand the country’s complex social issues,” she writes. “Instead, I got a front-row seat as China veered toward totalitarianism.”
The Chinese Communist Party, Chiu argues, has a growing “obsession” with control. One source for this preoccupation is the deep tradition of Confucianism and Legalism within the political class. But she also suggests that today’s leadership uses history as a convenient prop for amassing clout and maintaining an iron grip. “Since assuming power of the CCP in 2012,” she writes, “Chinese president Xi Jinping has declared his admiration for the Chinese classics and is particularly fond of quoting ancient Legalist scholars to justify why it is in his citizens’ best interests to submit to a strong leader.”
Chiu offers numerous examples of what this submission looks like. For dissidents, such as the human rights lawyer Xie Yang, it may take the form of imprisonment and torture: “Your only right is to obey,” police officers allegedly told him. There’s also “state harassment” of family members. For an estimated one million Uyghurs, it has meant concentration camps; according to leaked government documents, “anyone infected with an ideological ‘virus’ must be swiftly sent for the ‘residential care’ of transformation-through-education classes before illness arises.” For the nearly eight million residents of Hong Kong, it has meant the excision of their democratic rights and freedoms since a national security law ordered by Beijing came into effect during the summer of 2020.
And the CCP’s drive for control doesn’t end at the country’s borders. Indeed, the most illuminating parts of Chiu’s book describe the party’s overseas operations — the long arm of influence extending into sovereign nations. “I spoke with more than half a dozen Uyghurs who had recently escaped,” Chiu writes of Istanbul, for example. In each case, Chinese police “found their new phone numbers and ordered them to return home, first politely and then belligerently, issuing threats to their family members in Xinjiang if they refused. In one case, an officer even put a man’s frightened elderly father on the phone.” In Australia, she learned that “Chinese consular officials issued at least eight warnings between 2018 and 2019 to a Sydney-area government council” to sever ties with the local Vision China Times, which “ran in-depth stories and critical analysis related to political issues in China.”
And in Canada, Chiu describes how even the smallest imaginable dissent can be tracked and dissuaded. She tells the story of a Chinese national studying here, whose father back home worriedly got in touch with him one day. “Son, did you say something about the Chinese government on the internet? The public security bureau called us twice.” The student had indeed retweeted three mildly critical posts — to his two Twitter followers.
When it comes to China, the recent event that most shocked and angered Canadians was the treatment of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who both spent more than a thousand days imprisoned on trumped-up espionage charges. Chiu reminds us that they aren’t the only Canadians to have been jailed arbitrarily by Chinese authorities — Huseyin Celil has been detained since 2006 — but she recognizes that their ordeal heralded a new low in Canada-China relations. In The Two Michaels, the veteran journalist Mike Blanchfield and the political scientist Fen Osler Hampson examine this nadir with a most detailed account.
Canada’s 2018 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the technology giant Huawei, was always going to make waves — no matter that it was part of a U.S. extradition request. But Blanchfield and Hampson show how three trend lines combined to amplify these waves into an international tsunami.
First, they recount, successive Canadian governments chasing trade diversification attempted to curry favour with Beijing while naively assuming that we could export our values along with our goods (our righteous self-regard in these instances makes for cringeworthy reading). It’s clear now that they overestimated Canada’s influence. Then our leaders downplayed evidence of growing state repression and aggressive posturing. Blanchfield and Hampson also track the rise of “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy: the vigorous assertion of Chinese interests abroad, with little regard for the international response. “Beijing’s aggressive next-generation envoys practice a unique brand of shock-and-awe diplomacy,” they write, “sparing no insults or threats in service of their foreign policy objectives, which are every bit as aggressive as their rhetoric.”
Finally, and crucially, larger geopolitical considerations have increasingly coloured the relationship. Specifically, Blanchfield and Hampson detail the white-hot competition between China and the United States to control the digital plumbing of 5G networks, which policy makers consider central to technological superiority in such areas as artificial intelligence, smart infrastructure, and sustainable development — indeed, to the entire future of the internet, including national security and individual privacy. (Canada remains the only member of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance that has not announced whether Huawei will participate in building its 5G network.)
Spavor and Kovrig became the unfortunate victims of these factors coming together. From the improbability of the espionage charges levelled against them to the conditions of their detention (“degrading misery”), as well as Donald Trump’s unhelpful linkage of their fate to his trade deal with Beijing, Blanchfield and Hampson leave no stone in this sordid saga unturned.
The authors do an especially good job of fleshing out the details of the debate that raged in Ottawa — first privately, then publicly — between those who argued that Canada should secure the release of the two Michaels by unilaterally dropping Meng’s extradition case (a prisoner swap, in effect) and those who believed we should stand by our treaty obligations with Washington. In the former camp, a who’s who of foreign policy and legal experts argued that Canada could and should release Meng to bring the men home. In a confidential letter to the prime minister (which was quickly leaked), the former Liberal justice minister Allan Rock, acting as the ad hoc group’s spokesperson, wrote, “Removing the pressures of the extradition proceeding and the related imprisonment of the two Michaels will clear the way for Canada to freely decide and declare its position on all aspects of the Canada-China relationship.”
But Trudeau disagreed. “The bigger question is whether or not we want China or other countries to get the message that all they have to do to get leverage over the Canadian government is randomly arrest a couple of Canadians,” he maintained. “It is not just the two Michaels who are at question here. It is every Canadian who travels to China or anywhere else overseas.” (The authors do acknowledge the suggestions, made by some, that Trudeau’s position may have been influenced by a reluctance to interfere again in a judicial proceeding, as in the SNC‑Lavalin affair, or by a desire to not antagonize Trump.)
In the end, Canadian officials rallied international support, but the two Michaels were freed only when the Biden administration declined to pursue Meng’s extradition. Within hours of her release from house arrest in Vancouver, Spavor and Kovrig were on their way back home, ending once and for all Beijing’s fiction that they were spies.
Both China Unbound and The Two Michaels include sections entitled “A New Cold War,” although Chiu helpfully adds a question mark to hers. Both volumes do an admirable job of placing the events they describe against the backdrop of China’s world-historical emergence as a global power. By contrast, Jeremy Brown’s June Fourth: The Tiananmen Protests and Beijing Massacre of 1989 looks backward. Yet, of the three books, it offers perhaps the clearest insights into the nature of contemporary China’s government.
Brown, a historian at Simon Fraser University, has written a comprehensive account of the context, events, and aftermath of the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1989. Using ample primary source material, he makes a compelling case that the Tiananmen protests, far from being the work of a small, frustrated elite body of Beijing university students, involved millions of ordinary women and men, from cities and rural areas, whose anger with their government had been growing for years.
His description of China in the 1980s, as it left behind the madness of the late Mao years, is fascinating. The country was changing rapidly, and once distant opportunities were coming into view for countless millions. There was hope of increased political openness, and reformist leaders such as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang were making sincere attempts to improve the lives of their citizens. Citing Premier Zhao’s notes, Brown mentions that he even spoke of “genuinely doing a bit of democracy.”
But there was acrimony, too. Crime, corruption, and significant restrictions, including the one-child policy, which hit the rural population especially hard, all contributed to widespread displeasure. The unequal benefits of economic growth caused major dissatisfaction. “The flip side of this story,” Brown writes, “is that restrictions and repression, economic stress and unfairness, along with a geriatric dictatorship run by ‘old‑man politics’ rather than institutions or rules, caused great anger.” The book traces these problems and others, including the purge of reformist leaders, right up to the mass demonstrations that plunged the country into crisis in spring 1989.
As for the fateful day itself, Brown dispels the notion, still given credence, that Deng Xiaoping was reluctant to use force to disperse the protesters; he holds him and several other hardline leaders directly responsible for the subsequent massacre. It may be true, as the former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger wrote at the time, that “no government in the world would have tolerated having the main square of its capital occupied for eight weeks by tens of thousands of demonstrators.” But were tanks and automatic weapons the only solution?
There may have been other options — Brown describes “alternative paths” for each key event in his book — but I’m not sure the Tiananmen protests could have ended any other way. As Brown describes it, “the massacre was a profound failure of governance.” For the CCP, a body that has long prioritized control, murderously ending the movement may have been the only way to reassert its authority.
China’s gamble has been that a thriving economy will thwart popular demands for more equitable political representation and for a just regard for individual dignity. There are signs, however, that this approach isn’t working. Xi’s crackdown on tech tycoons tells us that he won’t tolerate an alternative power base, for example. His “common prosperity” redistributive policy tells us that income inequality remains a major source of popular discontent. His anti-corruption drive tells us that official malfeasance is still a problem. A massive censorship regime tells us that dissent is alive and well, if silenced. Even the leaking of detailed information about the treatment of Uyghurs tells us something: at least some senior officials disapprove of the CCP’s actions against the minority group.
This is how Brown’s history anticipates the actions and events described in China Unbound and The Two Michaels. The frustrations and anger of ordinary Chinese, along with a desire for change, haven’t disappeared since 1989; the authorities have just gotten better at preventing such emotions from taking root and growing. The country’s “old‑man politics” hasn’t been reformed either; if anything, it has worsened under Xi, who has steadily removed limits to his power. The CCP? It is clearly less willing to accept any threat to its hold on power. Why else go after a Twitter account with, literally, a couple of followers? Taken together, these three books show a governing party that learned the lessons of 1989 and has applied them ruthlessly.
If Canadians were simply hard-headed realists in international affairs, we could shrug our shoulders: as long as we can sell our goods into a vast market that doesn’t threaten us, who cares how a distant government behaves. But this is not a practical option. First, we do care. Polling consistently shows the public’s opinion of China is cratering; it was already trending down before the state kidnapping of Spavor and Kovrig. (Surveys and viewership figures also suggest that many Canadians tuned out the recent Winter Games for similar reasons.) Second, history teaches us that the internal problems of great powers don’t always stay internal. Xi likes to suggest that the CCP’s swagger abroad is a sign of boldness and confidence. But it may be a sign of weakness instead: a way of directing domestic discontent outward against those who would dare block China’s rightful ascent and place in the world. In this manner, those internal problems today may become our dilemmas tomorrow.
As Justin Trudeau has belatedly acknowledged, China’s continued advance has real-world consequences for this country. Canadians should expect more to come and press their government to develop a comprehensive strategy for managing the challenge.