Our problem with China is much bigger than the fate of the two Michaels

This contribution was published on The Hill Times on July 6, 2020

CSIS has warned about China’s activities for decades and those warnings have been shunted aside. China is not Canada’s friend. It is a serial human rights abuser in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims.

OTTAWA, CANADA — You have to feel for the families of the so-called ‘two Michaels’: Spavor and Kovrig. These two Canadians have been held by Chinese authorities for almost a year and a half now and this is causing understandable strain on their families. This was clearly evidenced by the recent plea by Mr. Kovrig’s wife, Vina Nadjibulla, to the Trudeau government to do more to gain his release. She was backed up by 19 former parliamentarians and diplomats, in addition to other prominent Canadians such as former Supreme Court justice Louise Arbour, calling on the federal justice minister to free Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou .

On the other hand, there are those such as former Liberal attorney general and justice minister Anne McLellan, who said that while she has great respect for the letter’s “heartfelt humanitarian” argument, she feels releasing Meng would set a dangerous precedent. Prime Minister Trudeau is, for the time being, opting not to release Meng, as are several seasoned op-ed writers in national newspapers such as the Globe and Mail, Ottawa Citizen (one was penned by Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, with whom I sit on the board of the National Capital Branch of the Canadian International Council) and National Post. Even my former Director at CSIS, Richard Fadden, has weighed in on the ‘no’ side.

We cannot give in to China’s bullying with respect to Michael Spavor, left, and Michael Kovrig, who have been detained by Chinese authorities since December 2018. There must be a better way that uses diplomatic pressure, including that of our allies, and still follows the tenets of international law. We all know what happens when you kowtow to the local hoodlum.

As a former CSIS strategic analyst, albeit a terrorism one and not a China one, I am perhaps not surprisingly aligned with Mr. Fadden. The issue we have with China, however, goes well beyond the current crisis. That nation has been engaging in activities in our land for decades, activities that undermine our national security and democracy. And yet successive governments appear not to have noticed or have chosen to ignore this interference as they were too bent on coddling China for economic profits.

There is no easy way to put this. China is not Canada’s friend. It is a serial human rights abuser in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims. It is destroying culture in Tibet and Hong Kong is under pressure.

Warnings shunted aside

A decade ago we warned about politicians who seemed to be under PRC influence and yet some MPs called on Mr. Fadden to resign over his ‘allegations’. It is not just Mr. Fadden who thinks this is a problem: a few days ago the head of the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians, as well as a former Canadian ambassador to the PRC, agreed that China’s moves in our country are not in our interest.

To my mind this speaks to a much greater problem. Over my 30+ years in security intelligence in Canada I was amazed at how the information we provided got a lukewarm reception. It was not all bad: we had some great consumers who relied on our data. Overall, however, I cannot give decision makers a high grade when it comes to the understanding and use of intelligence. In this we are well behind our traditional US and UK allies. It is almost as if they feel there is something ‘not quite right’ about spying.

Canadian governments are not the greatest in using the information intelligence agencies give them. A decade ago we warned about politicians who seemed to be under PRC influence.

There is no easy way to put this. China is not Canada’s friend. It is a serial human rights abuser in Xinjiang against Uyghur Muslims. It is destroying culture in Tibet, Hong Kong is under pressure. And then there are the manoeuvres by the PRC navy in the South China Sea.

We have eagerly followed the money for decades and helped support a regime whose ethos is antithetical to our own. I am not advocating open conflict, but rather an acknowledgement that Canada cannot and must not turn a blind eye to China’s actions. It is neither in our interest nor reflective of who we are as a country.

Watch Career CSIS Analyst on Russia bounty intelligence | Phil Gurski

We cannot give in to China’s bullying with respect to Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig.

There must be a better way that uses diplomatic pressure, including that of our allies, and still follows the tenets of international law. We all know what happens when you kowtow to the local hoodlum.

Our government must also pay more attention to what its intelligence agencies tell it. No, we do not have a crystal ball and no we are not perfect, but yes we do provide accurate, corroborated information that can, and must, help in policy development and decision making. Calling on the Director of CSIS to resign because he lifts the lid on foreign interference is not the way to go. We have spies for a reason.

Use what they gather and disseminate to advance Canada’s interests.

Phil Gurski

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