China Policy

Speaking Truth to Beijing: In Conversation with Michael Chong

Doug Firby
May 16, 2021
Going along to get along is an all-too-common human impulse. When the issue involves the world’s largest country wielding its standard foreign policy combination of limitless economic opportunity and menacing physical intimidation, that impulse can become irresistible. Some even attempt to elevate accommodation into a virtue. Not Michael Chong. His parents experienced the horrors of both fascism and communism first-hand. Today, Chong is not about to bow down to a new variant on an old tyranny: China’s Communist regime. Veteran journalist Doug Firby recently interviewed Chong, and below are the best portions of their conversation.
China Policy

Speaking Truth to Beijing: In Conversation with Michael Chong

Doug Firby
May 16, 2021
Going along to get along is an all-too-common human impulse. When the issue involves the world’s largest country wielding its standard foreign policy combination of limitless economic opportunity and menacing physical intimidation, that impulse can become irresistible. Some even attempt to elevate accommodation into a virtue. Not Michael Chong. His parents experienced the horrors of both fascism and communism first-hand. Today, Chong is not about to bow down to a new variant on an old tyranny: China’s Communist regime. Veteran journalist Doug Firby recently interviewed Chong, and below are the best portions of their conversation.
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Every politician wants to stand out. For Conservative MP Michael Chong, that has recurringly involved going against the political flow to stand on a point of principle. Most recently he earned the distinction of a public scolding from the Chinese government. In late March, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) announced that Chong is prohibited from entering China, Hong Kong or Macao, and that all Chinese citizens and institutions are forbidden from doing business with him.

Mass detention facilities, torture, sexual assault and destruction of families: The situation in western China.

Chong’s transgression? Speaking the truth about the fate of Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang region. As a member of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development, Chong played a key role in a recent parliamentary report declaring the Communist regime’s treatment of Uyghurs to constitute “crimes against humanity and genocide.”

The PRC was not amused. As is standard in denunciations of this sort, the banning of Chong was followed by a clumsy threat of further consequences. Chong and two American officials sanctioned at the same time were advised by the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to “stop interfering in China’s internal affairs in any form and refrain from going further down the wrong path. Otherwise, they will get their fingers burnt.”

The warning seems unlikely to have the desired effect. Throughout his political career, the 49-year-old MP from the rural southwestern Ontario riding of Wellington-Halton Hills has shown little fear of getting his “fingers burnt” when it comes to matters of principle. In 2006, he was an up-and-coming junior cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government when he resigned from caucus to protest the Prime Minister’s resolution recognizing “the Quebecois as a nation within a united Canada.” Chong was never invited back into cabinet. But after running for the Conservative Party leadership in 2017, finishing fifth, he earned a prominent Opposition role.

Currently the Conservatives’ critic for Foreign Affairs, Chong shrugs off his latest scolding as a purely symbolic effort; he has no plans to visit or do business in China. (Of course, the banning could very well endanger Chinese citizens or organizations who might want to reach out to him.) Regardless, Chong’s tough stance is significant.

The extent to which Canada can or should push back against Chinese intimidation remains a live political debate. The continuing saga of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig is a case in point. Both men were arrested by China two-and-a-half years ago in retaliation for Canada’s lawful detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a U.S. extradition request, and are still in jail. Many high-profile Canadian voices claim this proves Canada should acquiesce to Chinese demands and release Meng – essentially validating hostage-taking as diplomatic strategy. Canada is a small country, the appeasers argue, and we cannot afford to put our economic or strategic future at risk by angering an ascendant China.

Dancing to the regime’s tune: Trudeau refrained from voting on the Uyghur genocide motion, protecting Liberal Committee chair Fonseca (right) from Chinese sanctions. (Sources: Canadian Press)

This stance appears to have considerable support within the federal government. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau abstained from the vote on the Uyghur genocide motion – despite accepting the same accusation (on far weaker evidence, involving an issue of vastly smaller scale) when it was levelled against Canada by the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women inquiry. That no other members of the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development (nor on a related subcommittee on human rights), including the Liberal MPs who chair both committees, were specifically sanctioned by China further illuminates the regime’s message: Play nicely and you will be given preferential treatment; displease us and you will be punished.

Chong has represented the same riding since 2004 and lives on a farm with his wife and three children, a reflection of his rural upbringing. He recently sat down with C2C Journal’s Doug Firby over Zoom to discuss the unfolding tragedy of the Uyghurs, the future of Canada-China relations and how his fight with the PRC turned personal.

C2C JournalLet’s start with your recent rebuke by the Chinese government. How did you find out you’d become a target? 

Michael Chong: It was a Saturday morning and I’d just gotten out of bed around 9 o’clock. It was my first day off in weeks and I was looking forward to getting a coffee and enjoying my morning. Instead, I got a text message saying I’d just been sanctioned by the People’s Republic of China, with a link to the announcement. I clicked the link and quickly realized my morning off was no more. I would be answering media inquiries instead.

For his contribution to the parliamentary report condemning China’s genocide against Uyghurs, Conservative MP Chong has been barred from China – and all Chinese citizens forbidden from working with him. (Photos for C2C Journal by Christopher Katsarov Luna)

C2C: Tell me about your personal connections to China.

MC: My father was born and raised in Hong Kong in the 1920s, one of the youngest in a family of eight children. He was there during the Battle of Hong Kong [when the Japanese invaded in late 1941] and witnessed the fall of the city and the difficult conditions that followed. After the Second World War, he attended university in mainland China but he didn’t complete his studies once the Communists moved south. He was able to flee back to Hong Kong because of his British passport. Many other Chinese people weren’t so fortunate. My father never forgot that. Then in 1952 he decided to emigrate to Canada to attend the University of Manitoba.

C2CDo you still have relatives or friends in Hong Kong?

MC: I do, but I don’t communicate with them anymore. I want to avoid getting them caught up in my work. I do know they have lost a lot of personal liberties. There were foreboding signs that the situation was changing for the worse before the spring of 2019, but it really has moved dramatically in the last two years since the introduction of the Extradition Act by the Hong Kong government and subsequent crackdown by Beijing.

C2C: And now you can’t go back.

MC: That’s right. But it’s not going to affect me because I have no plans to travel there. Even before China sanctioned me, my wife and I had already decided we weren’t comfortable going to China or Hong Kong because of the changes.

C2C: Let’s move on to the immediate reason for the sanctions – the issue of human rights abuses and charges of genocide in Xinjiang. All of this is strongly disputed by China. How comfortable are you with the strength of the evidence?

MC: The House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights was able to gather on-the-ground accounts. We’ve also heard testimony at the Special Committee on Canada-China Relations, which I also sit on. I’ve heard it first-hand myself from survivors. And I’ve read many reports – credible reports – of human rights violations.

Article 2 of the 1948 Genocide Convention clearly identifies what constitutes a genocide, and several of the criteria are being met in Xinjiang province. It’s no longer in doubt. People who doubt the criteria are being met, who say it’s simply not true, are being willfully ignorant of what is going on there. It’s clear that hundreds of detention camps have been built. We know this from high-resolution satellite evidence and also survivor testimony. It’s also clear that upwards of a million people have been detained in these camps. It’s clear that mothers and fathers are being separated from their children. It’s clear that there is systematic state-sponsored sexual violence taking place. It’s also clear that there are massive relocations taking place. The Chinese government itself admits that births amongst the Uyghur Muslim minority have plummeted in a few short years. There’s overwhelming evidence and we can no longer ignore this reality.

“Willfully ignorant”: Fascination with Chinese culture and history seems to deprive many people of rational assessment of the country’s behaviour and leadership, including (at lower right) president-for-life Xi. (Source of lower two images: Canadian Press)

C2C: You use the term “willfully ignorant.” Can you expand on that?

MC: This is an important point. Many people have a deep admiration for Chinese civilization, as do I. Many people also have significant commercial interests in China. My quarrel isn’t with the people of China, or its deep history. It’s with the leadership in Beijing. Unfortunately, a lot of people conflate the two and are reluctant to criticize the government, or they turn a blind eye to it. I’m proud of my Asian heritage. That said, I can differentiate between that pride and criticism of the Communist leadership in Beijing, which is increasingly a threat to Canada, our interests and our values.

C2C: Can you explain the threat China poses to Canada? There’s been a great deal of debate on this recently. The Atlantic magazine recently had a column by David Frum that argued, in part, that the West worries excessively about China’s influence. What are your thoughts?

According to commentator Frum, the West is overly concerned about Chinese influence. (Source: Policy Exchange, licensed under CC BY 2.0)

MC: I don’t necessarily disagree with David Frum. I think we have to accept two things. First, that China is a threat to certain sectors of our economy and to our values as citizens. But at the same time – and I think this is what David is arguing, and I agree with him – we have to have confidence in the principles upon which Western democracy is based. Democratic institutions, human rights and liberties, and the rule of law: these are enduring principles.

We do have a crisis of confidence in Western democracies. People are asking: Are these principles enough? Is democracy really a superior system? What about the tremendous economic growth China has experienced over the last 20 to 30 years? Look at how they can get things done in a way that we can’t seem to. But I do believe these principles will ultimately triumph over an authoritarian model of governance because they’re based on reason, evidence and time-tested truths.

C2C: How would you describe your approach to foreign policy?

MC: I’m a realist. Canada is not a superpower. While we are a G7 country, we have to be realistic about our ability to affect outcomes outside of this country. The role of foreign policy should be to do two things. First, to defend the safety and security of Canadians from economic and bodily harms. That is the primary role of all governments. Second, there is a responsibility to protect our values over the longer term. This includes strengthening democracies world-wide – something that’s been in retreat over the last 20 years. It also includes strengthening judicial systems and the rule of law to promote justice and liberty for people abroad and ensuring more people around the world experience the freedoms we enjoy here in this country.

Crisis of confidence: Totalitarian China’s meteoric ascent has made many Westerners doubt the staying power of democracy, pluralism and openness.

C2C: Beijing’s sanction was obviously designed to intimidate and silence you. How successful has it been?

MC: I don’t think these sanctions are going to be successful. If anything, it is bringing people together. I’ve had conversations with members of parliament in the Netherlands and the UK who have also been sanctioned. We’ve endeavoured to work together on the Uyghur genocide and on China’s other threats to our citizens and to our economy. China is trying to silence us because they’re worried about what we are saying. But if they think this is somehow going to cause me to become silent and slink away, they’re sadly mistaken. I wear the sanction proudly and publicly as a badge of honour.

C2C: Has anyone in this country tried to convince you to be more sympathetic towards China?

MC: Yes. That’s a good question, because it allows me to point out two things that are going on in Canada right now that concern me. The first is the rise in anti-Asian discrimination. This is clearly not acceptable. Second is that many Canadians of Chinese descent who have spoken up against the Communist leadership in Beijing – whether on Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy, on Tibet, on the Uyghurs or on other issues – have been subject to intimidation and threats by their fellow Canadians in the Chinese community. This is a problem we need to acknowledge.

As anti-Asian sentiment in Canada grows, so does the blatant intimidation of pro-freedom Chinese Canadians by domestic lackeys of the regime. (Sources left to right: Shutterstock/ Kits Pix, Shutterstock/ Eric Kukulowicz)

The Chinese community in Canada is some 1.5 million strong and it is certainly not monolithic. There are people who come from a wide range of backgrounds. Some can’t speak a word of Chinese and have been here for generations, with forebears who helped build the transcontinental railway. Others arrived last year. Some came from other parts of Asia. It is a truly diverse community and we have to acknowledge the threats and intimidation coming from one part of the community toward a different part of the community because of their political positions.

C2C: Let’s talk about the Prime Minister’s position. Justin Trudeau and the entire Liberal cabinet abstained from the February 22 vote that accused China of committing genocide against the Uyghurs. Yet Trudeau turned around and called the sanctions against you “unacceptable.” What do you make of this?

MC: Abstaining from the vote was a complete abdication of leadership. A leader should make tough decisions, not run away from those decisions. And I think this is reflective of a broader problem with this government: they talk a good game on a range of foreign and domestic issues but when push comes to shove, they often fail to act. Their rhetoric is not matched by their actions. In fact, on a range of issues the gap between rhetoric and reality has widened. After just over five years in power, their level of foreign aid is actually lower than the previous Conservative government’s.

Canada is “back”… to mediocrity. Under Trudeau Canada spends less on foreign aid than under the Conservatives, and just lost its latest bid for a UN Security Council seat. (Source: Canadian Press)

Canada hasn’t been pulling its weight on the world stage in recent years. This prime minister came to office in 2015 and arrogantly proclaimed that “Canada is back.” He made it a centerpiece of his foreign policy to seek a seat on the UN Security Council. Well, the results on that are in. Last June, Canada lost with six fewer votes than Canada received a decade ago. That’s six fewer countries that see Canada as a leader on the world stage. That’s hard quantitative evidence that this government has damaged our reputation on the world stage.

C2C: President Xi Jinping’s spiteful and belligerent attitude towards Canada has been obvious since the arrest of Huawei’s Meng: the blocking of canola seed and meat exports, delaying soybean sales and on and on. Can Canada survive further punitive action from China if we adopt a more aggressive posture as you suggest?

MC: My view is that by equivocating in the face of China’s threats we only encourage them to go further. China is using Canada and other similar-sized countries as piñatas – examples to the rest of the world of what will happen if they don’t fall into line with China’s demands. And my strong view is that we have to tell China we’re not going to just sit back and take it. By standing up to these threats we can send a clear signal to Beijing that we’re not a country to pick on.

When China’s ambassador to Canada accuses this country of being white supremacist, we should have expelled several of their diplomats for such an egregious accusation. And when China puts on non-tariff barriers to products like beef, canola and pork, we should respond in kind. We have a huge trade imbalance with China. For every dollar we export, we import four dollars. So, we should be making it clear to China that if they’re going to hit us, we’re going to hit back. Like the Australians are doing.

We should also be taking some of the lessons we’ve learned from managing the single largest asymmetrical relationship in the world: the Canada-U.S. relationship. The United States is our closest ally and trading partner; we are friends united by geography, history and so many other things. But we have our spats from time to time. And when the U.S. puts tariffs on Canadian exports of aluminum, for example, the Canadian government is very quick to react. We should be doing the same thing when it comes to China.

Diversify: Chong notes that China needs Canada’s markets far more than vice-versa, and that the world is full of growing economies with which Canada could increase trade.

C2C: Kevin Carmichael, senior fellow at the Centre for International Governance Innovation, argued recently in the Financial Post that, “Failing to constructively engage now [with China] will result in long term harm to Canadian companies and workers.” Do you not agree?

MC: No, I don’t, because there are many economic opportunities that Canada has. While China is an important trading partner, it is by far and away overshadowed by our trade with the European Union. It’s by far and away overshadowed by our trade with the United States. So when we’re looking to the future, we should be looking to expand trade with the European Union, looking to expand trade through the Trans-Pacific Partnership. These are made up of countries that in many cases share our values, whose populations are growing and where there are immense economic opportunities.

C2C: Canada has used the so-called “Magnitsky Law” to impose sanctions on human rights abusers in Saudi Arabia, Russia, Venezuela and Myanmar. Should we be doing the same thing with China’s human rights abuses?

MC: That’s a good question. The government has been slow to work with our allies in placing sanctions, whether they be general economic sanctions or Magnitsky sanctions on individual actors who have violated international law and human rights. I think the Liberal government needs to make a much stronger diplomatic effort to work with like-minded allies in Europe, the U.S. and Australia to ensure that when those countries come forward with sanctions, Canada is working in concert with them. I think that’s a much more effective way for us to conduct our foreign policy than what the current government has done. The reason why this is so important is that if we don’t act in concert, we actually are less effective, because sanctioned individuals then have opportunity to shift their money, assets and operations to other countries.

C2C: Let’s talk about the Confucius Institutes. Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo has said Ottawa should close these Beijing-sponsored operations in Canada’s schools and universities because they are “spy hubs.” Do you agree?

MC: The fact the Confucius Institutes have put a chill on free speech and free debate around human rights abuses in China is a concern. At the same time, I believe in human liberty and academic freedom. There needs to be a bit of balance. But the Liberal government hasn’t done a very good job of managing the threat. I think the federal government should advise Canadian universities and colleges against partnerships with organizations like the Confucius Institutes because they’re too close to China’s national security and intelligence apparatus. The federal government can’t impose its will on colleges and universities and school boards, because they are within provincial jurisdiction. But it has a lot of intelligence and security resources to share. And I think doing so would allow provinces and universities to decouple themselves from these relationships. So far, the federal government has not done that.

C2C: To what degree do you think China has been able to penetrate Canadian institutions and/or try to influence the attitudes and behaviour of Canadians?

China’s numerous though seemingly generous Confucius Institutes (upper photo, sculpture of Confucius) are simply “spy hubs,” as Conservative Senator Thanh Hai Ngo (lower photo) called them, which serve as regime tools to penetrate Western educational systems.

MC: It’s clear the Chinese government, through its consulates and missions, tries to influence domestic politics and is trying to influence broader civil society. That’s why the Liberal government needs to come forward with a robust plan to counter these intimidation and influence operations. It’s important to make a distinction, though. Foreign governments attempt to influence other countries all the time. There are legitimate forms of influence and there are illegitimate forms of influence. And I think much of what China has been doing in recent years is of the illegitimate type. We need to make it clear to China’s diplomats, embassies, its missions here that anything on this side of the line is completely unacceptable and grounds for us taking action.

I’ll give you a couple examples. Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have been intimidated and threatened by groups coordinated through China’s consulates and embassies here in Canada. That’s unacceptable. Another example occurred a couple of years ago at the University of Toronto. A woman of Tibetan descent was elected president of the University of Toronto’s Scarborough Student Council. She was subsequently threatened and intimidated by a group of students at the university who were coordinated by the Chinese consulate. The government should make it clear to China’s accredited diplomats that any interference with citizens like this will be grounds for being expelled from Canada.

C2C: It seems to me that everything we buy these days is made in China. It’s now our second-biggest trading partner. How do we unravel this extreme overreliance on that country for trade without exacting some serious harm on our own economy?

MC: There are a number of things we should do. Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit. Let’s secure the stockpiles that we need for future pandemics and future emergencies. Second, let’s leverage the natural strength of this country, which is in natural resources, and ensure that we not only develop the natural resources here to produce the materials the world will need as we transition our energy mix, but the expertise here to process these minerals and turn them into the products that companies will need.

C2C: Do you expect the average Canadian to stand up to China? The lure of cheap consumer products can be hard to resist.

MC: I think the average Canadian wants the government to take a stronger stand on China. They understand there’s more at stake here than the almighty dollar. Canadians have shown themselves prepared to make sacrifices when their values are at risk. I think there’s a parallel we can draw from south of the border. Recall that the previous American administration took a strong stand on China and imposed tariffs. Many people speculated that support for the president would drop in areas of the country that were most affected by these tariffs, such as in the Corn Belt. That’s because China put countervailing tariffs on American agricultural products. Well, the opposite happened. The president’s support increased amongst corn farmers because they understood what he was trying to do. I think the same would be true of Canadians. If you look at the polls, 85 per cent of Canadians support the federal government taking a stronger stand on China.

C2C: If there is a theme that runs through your career in politics, it’s a willingness to stand on principle, even when it comes at a personal cost. What drives that sense of principle?

MC: Well, I guess the first thing is it’s not about me. It’s about the principles that we all share. I’ve always thought the way we make decisions is just as important as the end result. Politics is often about compromise, because if nobody compromises, nothing gets accomplished. But on the fundamental questions of the day, I think you have to stick to your principles.

My wife Carrie once said to me early on after I was elected, when I was wrestling with a decision, she said, “You should go and make the decision on principle and based on your deeply held beliefs, because if you don’t, a piece of you will die.” She was right. I think by sticking to your fundamental principles, you remain true to yourself. And ultimately, I think that’s what gives me the inner peace to continue on.

C2C: Do you draw a connection between your faith and your principles?

MC: My faith is a deeply personal thing for me and Carrie and our children. One of the things that was instilled in me from a very young age was the Christian concept of the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have done to yourself.” That explains my view on the importance of speaking out about injustice and doing what I can. You have to stand up for what is right. But I think it also informs me in a different way – that we are all flawed human beings. We do not live in a utopia here on planet Earth, because we are all imperfect. And so we should be skeptical about concentrating power in any one person. We should always advocate for checks and balances, and ensure that we are humble and modest in considering the world.

An important concept to me is that Western democracies are not theocracies. The moral and religious and spiritual edification of a population should be done not through the state, but through the church and through the synagogue and through the mosque and through other religious denominations. The role of government is to ensure religious freedom and prevent harm. Not to regulate morality, but to maximize liberty and freedom to the limits that it imposes harm on other people. The role of government is a de minimis role. Pluralism allows religious liberty to flourish and this allows religious organizations to fulfill their role in meeting people’s spiritual needs.

C2C: Would you draw a similar connection with your rural upbringing?

MC: Absolutely. I grew up in southern Ontario and graduated from Fergus High School in 1990. And like any 18-year-old in rural Ontario, I couldn’t get out of Dodge fast enough. So I spent the next 15 years living in Toronto attending university and working. I came back in 2004 and won the election and I think this allows me to understand both sides of the rural/urban divide. There are only about 200,000 farms in a country with some 18 million households. I appreciate how people in downtown Toronto and downtown Vancouver and downtown Calgary think, while I also feel very fortunate to have grown up in a rural community.

C2C: Finally, looking back through our country’s history, what or who stands out for you as something or someone you admire for their foreign policy?

MC: I admire the Canada of 1939 to 1945. That was a Canada made up of leaders in Parliament who understood the stakes at play. It was a Canada that sent hundreds of thousands of young Canadian men into battle to defend vulnerable people on both sides of the world. It was a Canada that liberated my mother and her family in May of 1945 from the tyranny of fascism in Western Europe, in the Netherlands. Canada defended my father and his family during the Battle of Hong Kong, with 2,000 Canadian troops fighting valiantly, half of them casualties in that battle, many of them taken prisoner of war who suffered horrifically in the subsequent four, five years. I have great admiration for that generation of Canadians.

Doug Firby is a veteran journalist and regular contributor to C2C Journal. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Photographs of Michael Chong by Christopher Katsarov Luna.

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