A ‘friend of China’ no more: Why a longtime Canadian ally has become one of Beijing’s fierce critics

Good profile and account of her realization that she needed to speak out regarding the need for a reset of Canada-China relations, with Canada needing to take a harder line:

It was 1979 and Beijing was in the midst of its first democracy movement. Margaret McCuaig-Johnston, then a civil servant in the Ontario government opening up after decades of isolation from the outside world.

The Xidan democracy wall, part of a peaceful public outburst against the Communist Party of China, was in full swing and McCuaig-Johnston had been following the story in Canadian media.

“I had never even thought of China. It was not on my radar at all, but this sounded really interesting,” she said. “So, my husband and I went over to China.”

At the time, only group tours were allowed, so she made the trip with the University of Toronto Alumni Association and even managed a trip to see the democracy wall in Beijing, which hosted messages of hope and reform from the mainland Chinese people. From there, McCuaig-Johnston travelled the country and decided to do a master’s degree in international relations focused on China.

For the next 40 years, including working as a civil servant, she collaborated to advance the relationship between Canada and China. Part of her work meant helping China develop its science and technology programs during its reform period.

Eventually, McCuaig-Johnston would become the vice-president of the Canada-China friendship association and consider herself a “friend of China,” a common expression used for those who support partnerships and engagement with Beijing.

But everything changed last December.

That’s when Meng Wanzhou, chief financial officer of Chinese tech giant Huawei, was arrested. She had been passing through Vancouver’s airport when she was detained on a warrant request from the United States. The arrest sparked a firestorm that has torched relations between China and Canada.

McCuaig-Johnston said she’d already had concerns about the direction Beijing was taking on human rights, particularly regarding internment camps for Muslims in the Xinjiang province, as well as the country’s increasing aggression in the South China Sea.

But what galvanized those concerns was the detention without charges of two Canadian citizens, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who remain in Chinese custody months later. Another two Canadians were sentenced to death for drug convictions, which have not been carried out. Shortly after, Beijing levelled sanctions against Canadian pork and beef.

After decades spent facilitating China’s enhanced ties to Canada, McCuaig-Johnston returned to her hotel room in Shanghai the same week Kovrig and Spavor were arrested to find her locked luggage had been unlocked and rummaged through.

She said she believes it was Chinese authorities because nothing was taken. Then a local business acquaintance told her he had heard authorities had a list of 100 Canadians they could detain and interrogate at any time. McCuaig-Johnston had reached her limit.

“When I came home, I decided to speak out,” she said.

Since then, McCuaig-Johnston has written five editorials in national newspapers critical of China, given 30 interviews and recently published Dragon at the Door through the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. The paper calls for Canada to conduct a reset of relations with Beijing, insisting Ottawa to take a harder line.

“Up until January, I had never done an interview in my life,” she said. “But I feel it’s important that friends of China — former friends of China — speak out about this.”

Her paper suggests pulling out of China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, using so-called Magnitsky legislation to punish Hong Kong officials who abuse human rights, or sending pandas now living at the Calgary Zoo back to China early. Canada must also pivot to an Indo-Pacific economic strategy, she argued.

Foreign affairs critic Erin O’Toole agreed with measures laid out in the paper, but suggested the Liberal government seems unwilling to take such strong action.

“We are rolling over, we are acquiescing, at a time when Chinese aggression is on the rise,” O’Toole said. “We should be working with like-minded allies to send a real signal that such conduct is not condoned.

If keeping quiet and friendly were going to work with China, Spavor and Kovrig “would have been released months ago,” he said.

On Friday, China’s new ambassador to Canada, Cong Peiwu, urged Canada to not pass legislation similar to the United States’ sanctioning China and Hong Kong officials who abuse human rights. The bill is in support of students in the special administrative region who have been protesting for months. About 300,000 Canadians live in Hong Kong.

Cong said it could cause “very bad damage” if Canada were to use similar legislation.

The Liberal government had issued no response to those comments by press time Friday.

Observers have noted that many advisers around the Liberal government have ties and interests in China, including new ambassador to Beijing, Dominic Barton, and McCuaig-Johnston was once among the ranks of such business people, academics and bureaucrats.

But though “friends of China” may express outrage at China behind closed doors, many have told her they will not do so in public for fear of losing their privileges in the country.

In January, more than 140 academics and diplomats around the world signed a letter demanding China release Kovrig and Spavor. But just six Canadian academics signed while another six former Canadian ambassadors to China also signed.

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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