As Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) passed through the Canadian capital late last month ahead of the G20 meeting, there was yet another example of the nefarious influence the Chinese government is having on freedom of expression worldwide. Given Taiwan’s proximity to — and increasingly close ties with — the Asian giant, this latest development should serve as a warning.
While the great majority of state visits with world leaders in Ottawa conclude with a press conference, Hu’s didn’t. In fact, it has since been revealed that the office of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper agreed to cancel the joint press conference to prevent critical Chinese journalists from participating. The Chinese embassy in Ottawa was reportedly concerned that the press conference would include reporters from two media organizations reviled by Beijing — the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV.
A few weeks prior to Hu’s visit, the Chinese embassy had reporters from those two organizations barred from attending the press conference. The request was first turned down by the parliamentary press gallery, on the grounds that the media organizations were full members of the gallery.
Not to be dissuaded, the embassy then went straight to the prime minister’s office. Initially, as the Globe and Mail reported, Harper’s office attempted to strike a compromise with the gallery. Facing principled opposition, Harper’s office decided to cancel the press conference altogether, sparking accusations from Helene Buzzetti, president of the parliamentary press gallery in Ottawa, that Harper had agreed to Chinese censorship.
To add irritant to the Hu-Harper lovefest, many Canadian entrepreneurs who straddle the fine line between business and policy-making, including Power Corp chief executive (and son-in-law of former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien) Andre Demarais, gravitated to Hu like moons round a planet.
The Desmarais family, who for many years has been the “architects” of Canada’s China policy, developed strong ties with some leading Chinese families, notably those of former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平), former deputy premier Bo Yibo (薄一波) and former premier Li Peng (李鵬).
One photo of a dinner held in Hu’s honor and released by the prime minister’s office had Demarais, who was seated to Hu’s right, conveniently blocked by what else — the perfect metaphor: a small Chinese flag.
Around the time Hu was in Ottawa, Canada’s civilian spy agency, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), released an unclassified version of a report that pointed to strong evidence of China acting as an “agent of influence” on federal and provincial officials.
“In Canada,” David Harris, a former CSIS official, wrote in a July 1 opinion piece, “Beijing spies, bullies recalcitrant Canadian Chinese, funds ‘spontaneous’ pro-Chinese demonstrations, and otherwise interferes in our democracy.”
This interference includes seducing politicians, public servants, academics, lawyers and other professionals. It also comes in the form of current and former Department of Foreign Affairs officials sitting on the board of a major China-connected trade organization.
The consequences of this influence by the Chinese government on Canadian liberties are encapsulated in the story of a former member of parliament — an earnest defender of Taiwan — suddenly embracing Beijing’s “one China” policy and forcing that view on other ministers and officials.
“Too many Mainland boondoggles and hostesses,” Harris wrote of that particular case.
Equally worrying is the effectiveness of Beijing’s carrot-and-stick treatment of foes and allies alike. While the carrots are self-evident (just ask the Demarais), the sticks usually come in the form of denials and threats by Chinese officials or lawsuits by Chinese pressure groups against whoever publishes material that criticized the actions of the Chinese government.
Not only did Beijing deny it engaged in espionage in Canada, but a campaign against the head of the Canadian spy agency was launched by no other than Hong Kong-born member of parliament Olivia Chow. While one’s ethnicity or place of birth should not be grounds for suspicion (in other words, that Chow is acting on behalf of China), associations with certain groups or individuals are a different thing altogether. In Chow’s case, it is the Canada Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia (ALPHA), whose founder, Joseph Wong, flanked Chow at her press conference targeting the CSIS report.
ALPHA, which denies any contact with Chinese embassy officials, has a long history of using lawsuits to silence Beijing’s detractors. In one recent case, it even managed to have a book recalled — and reprinted, minus a few lines — because the authors (one of whom was a former CSIS employee) made allegations of Chinese espionage in Canada.
For its part, CSIS has a long history of ineffective media relations, mostly the result of a policy of not discussing intelligence matters in public, which makes it easy for people like Chow to claim that its accusations are “baseless.”
If a “mature” democracy like Canada can allow its values to be thus warped by Chinese officials and lobby organizations, we can only fear what will happen in Taiwan — a young democracy that is still not entirely sure-footed — as contact between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait increases.
Could we, for example, expect the Government Information Office under President Ma Ying-jeou’s (馬英九) administration to protect reporters’ interests (and in so doing, freedom of expression) with the same verve as the Canadian parliament’s press gallery, which still succumbed to Beijing’s shadow of censorship? Would our intelligence agencies even dare release a report that accuses China of corrupting our system and its officials, knowing that doing so could cost business opportunities or, in the brave new world of the ECFA, invite a salvo of blackmail?
J. Michael Cole is deputy news editor at the Taipei Times and a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.
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