Lessons for the world of the China-Canada prisoner exchange
As Canada celebrates the return of the “two Michael’s,” it is worth asking what this saga of hostage diplomacy tells us about Canada-China relations and world affairs in general.
Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor took off shortly after Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, detained in Vancouver, reached a deferred prosecution agreement with the United States government.
China and Canada can claim to have achieved their goals – the two Michael’s returned to Canada to be greeted by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau while Meng Wanzhou made a triumphant return to China.
But China came out on top after quietly signaling its willingness to swap prisoners for a while. Beijing responded to Meng’s arrest in 2018 by quickly arresting Kovrig and Spavor. When Meng was released, so was the Canadian duo, surprising pundits and pundits. It was tit for tat, Meng for the Michaels.
Many experts expected China to wait a few months to uphold the claim that the two Canadians were arrested for real crimes.
Rather, the speed of Chinese action signaled a bigger message to the world from the ruling Chinese Communist Party: don’t mess with us.
China seeks the same global privileges that the United States currently has and takes for granted. When it comes to the “rules-based international order” so beloved by Canada and like-minded states, the US government is both partisan and periodically abstaining.
In other words, the United States plays by the rules when it is in the American national interest to do so. He breaks these rules whenever he wants to.
Play by the rules when it’s convenient
The Chinese government wants the same privilege. After his “peaceful rise” to world power, he wants to be feared, respected and have the same ability to bend and change the rules. Canadian policymakers would do well to understand that China seeks equality and respect, and to learn from history to forge a more effective Chinese strategy.
Getting along with the Americans has been at the heart of Canadian foreign policy for over a century. It’s time to learn how to apply the lessons learned to effectively manage the relationship with what is now the world’s other superpower.
A look back in time reveals that tit-for-tat hostage diplomacy did not start with Meng’s arrest.
In 1967, British authorities cracked down on protesters in Hong Kong. They banned three pro-communist Chinese newspapers and jailed some of their workers, including Chinese citizens.
Chinese authorities immediately retaliated by targeting the only British journalist in China. Reuters correspondent Anthony Gray spent 777 days under house arrest. After the Chinese newspaper employees served two years in prison, Gray was also quickly released.
Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai even said The Globe and Mail correspondent in China (my father by the way) that Gray would be welcome to resume his duties at Reuters. Zhou openly joked about his ability to imprison or release the reporter at will.
Hostage diplomacy, in other words, is nothing new.
Diplomatic ties established
Since then, Canada’s efforts have focused on bringing China into the “rules-based international order.” Pierre Trudeau’s government defied American wishes when it established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China in 1971.
Much of the Canadian aid was aimed at remaking China, much like the efforts of Canadian missionaries who attempted to change China in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Since the 1970s, Canada’s policy towards China has oscillated between a missionary drive to transform the country and a market drive to make money. Both were about “engagement”, trying to get China to follow international standards.
But in 1997, Canadian did an about-face when the government of Jean Chrétien stopped supporting a United Nations human rights resolution in China in favor of “bilateral human rights dialogues” with the Chinese.
As Chinese expert Charles Burton argued, these closed-door conversations were totally ineffective in promoting human rights. Yet they have been very effective in sidelining human rights groups.
Read more: Canada-China Trade Agreement: Is Ottawa Betraying Our Democratic Values?
Canada refused to push China on human rights in part because it was competing with other countries for what had become its top priority in China: trade. Canada began to carry out huge trade missions to China, happy to pick up the leftovers thrown at it by a greater power.
Is it any surprise that in 2018, Chinese authorities felt they could arrest Canadians with impunity and detain them without retaliation? Decades of Canadian politics had shown them that they had little to fear.
China arrested Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil in 2006 and easily dismissed Canadian “quiet diplomacy”. The Canadian Ambassador cared so little about the affair that he even forgot that Celil was Canadian.
Read more: Forgotten Canadian languishes in Chinese prison
Canadian diplomats clearly found a smart solution to the two Michaels’ dilemma, but it was hardly an integrated approach given that bilateral trade continued at a steady pace.
Today there are already calls in Canada to return to business “as usual” (literally) with China.
But there are also demands for a much tougher stance on China and calls for Canada to be allowed to participate in the new AUKUS security pact between the US, UK and Australia aimed at restraining the Chinese in the Indo-Pacific region.
Read more: Canada’s exclusion from the AUKUS security pact reveals a failing national defense policy
But what is really needed is a history-based policy and an understanding of China that is as astute as Canada’s understanding of its neighbor to the south.
History matters to Chinese policymakers. Historical analogies often telegraph Chinese intentions. After the Chinese revolution, China sought to regain respect and the center of the world economy.
It appeared in a position of strength after the “century of humiliation” which allowed the Western powers to impose themselves there.
What Can Canada Do?
Canada could consider re-establishing the post of a “sinologist” (Chinese expert) embassy in Beijing. Universities could do more to teach future leaders about Chinese history. The media could do more in-depth reporting on China, as they do on US affairs.
At the same time, Canadian policymakers must stop saying one thing and do the opposite. Chinese authorities are also studying Canada. Successive Canadian prime ministers and other leaders have shown the world they will be shouting about human rights in front of a national audience while begging China to increase trade. They will talk and tweet about feminist foreign policies while shipping weapons systems to Saudi Arabia.
Read more: Canada’s turbulent history of arms sales to human rights violators
Rather than behaving like a “paper tiger,” Canada must embark on a coherent rights-based policy integrated into all aspects of foreign and trade policy as well as domestic policy. After all, Canada and China both have appalling human rights records for indigenous peoples – whether Cree or Uyghur, Tibetan or Atikamekw – and have committed historic and ongoing genocide against them.
It is time for Canada to systematically equate rhetoric with action. Perhaps the two Michael’s return celebrations will lead to new policies that avoid a repeat.