Beijing may have tried to discourage Canadians from voting Conservative: federal unit

Not surprising:

A federal research unit detected what might be a Chinese Communist Party information operation that aimed to discourage Canadians of Chinese heritage from voting for the Conservatives in the last federal election.

The Sept. 13, 2021, analysis by Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, which tracks foreign interference, says researchers observed Communist Party media accounts on Chinese social media platform Douyin widely sharing a narrative that the Conservatives would all but sever diplomatic relations with Beijing.

The report, obtained by The Canadian Press through the Access to Information Act, was prepared just a week before Canadians went to the polls.

Justin Trudeau’s Liberals emerged from the Sept. 20 national ballot with a renewed minority mandate, while the Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole, formed the official Opposition.

O’Toole, who is no longer leader, claimed on a podcast recorded this month that the Conservatives lost eight or nine seats to foreign interference from China.

Rapid Response Mechanism Canada, based at Global Affairs Canada, produces open data analysis to chart trends, strategies and tactics in foreign interference.

Its work supports the G7 RRM, an initiative to strengthen co-ordination to identify and respond to threats to the major industrial democracies.

The analysis of messaging about the Conservative party was part of RRM Canada’s effort to monitor the digital information environment for signs of foreign state-sponsored information manipulation in the general election.

Conservative MP Michael Chong, the party’s foreign affairs critic, said in an interview the analysis is “another piece of evidence that the Communist leadership in Beijing interfered in the last general election by spreading disinformation.”

RRM Canada says it manually reviewed Chinese social media platforms including WeChat, Douyin, Weibo, Xigua and Bilibili, and conducted open-source forensic digital analysis using website archives, social listening tools, and cross-platform social media ranking tools.

The analysts first noticed the narrative about the Conservatives in two articles published Sept. 8 by the Global Times, a state-owned media tabloid.

RRM Canada believes the Global Times coverage was prompted by a story in the Ottawa-based Hill Times newspaper that examined Canadian parties’ positions on Canada-China relations. The analysis says it is likely that the Global Times was the first Chinese publication to pick up on the Ottawa publication’s content, with its two articles getting over 100,000 page views apiece.

RRM Canada notes the timing coincided with the first federal leaders’ debate and increasingly close poll numbers. Similar pieces published by major Canadian media outlets earlier in September, as well as the Conservative party platform released in August, elicited no response from state-controlled media in China, the analysis says.

Several popular Canada-focused WeChat news accounts began engaging with the Global Times narrative on Sept. 9, copying the content and form without crediting the publication, “obscuring the narrative’s point of origin,” the analysts found.

Accounts also added commentary about the Tories to the articles, such as “Chinese are frightened by the platform,” and questioned whether “Chinese compatriots should support the Conservatives if they use this rhetoric.”

“Unless otherwise credited, WeChat users would not know that the narrative about the Conservatives and O’Toole originated from the Global Times and would assume the articles were original reporting from the Canadian WeChat accounts.”

Many WeChat news accounts that serve Canadians are registered to people in China and despite being well-established news sources, “some may have unclear links” to Chinese Communist Party media groups, the analysis says.

The researchers were “unable to determine whether there is co-ordination between the CCP media that originally promoted the narrative and the popular WeChat news accounts that service Chinese-speaking Canadians that are now amplifying the narrative,” the Sept. 13 analysis cautions.

“RRM Canada is also unable to determine whether there was inauthentic activity that boosted user engagement with the narrative as Chinese social media platforms are completely non-transparent.”

However, Communist Party media accounts on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, published videos that repeated a Sept. 8 Global Times headline, the analysis says. For instance, the Douyin account of Xinhua, China’s state press agency, shared a video saying the Conservative platform mentions China “31 times” and that an “expert” says the party “almost wants to break diplomatic relations with China.”

The Chinese Embassy in Ottawa did not respond to a request for comment on the RRM Canada analysis.

Among the Conservative platform planks in the election campaign were promises to stand up to Beijing on human rights issues, diversify supply chains to move them away from China, adopt a presumption against allowing Beijing’s state-owned entities to take over Canadian companies, and work toward less global reliance on critical minerals from China.

Chong says it’s clear that proxies were spreading disinformation on behalf of Beijing in the federal election.

“It’s hard to measure whether that was the reason for the loss of some Conservative MPs. But I think we can safely say that it was a contributing factor.”

If Beijing comes to the same conclusion, China “may very well be emboldened to do something much bigger in a future federal election, undermining our democratic process,” Chong said.

Under a federal protocol, there would be a public announcement if a panel of senior bureaucrats determined that an incident — or an accumulation of incidents — threatened Canada’s ability to have a free and fair election. There was no such announcement last year.

At a House of Commons committee meeting early this month, Bill Blair, public safety minister during the election campaign, said while “we’ve all heard anecdotes and various opinions,” he had not directly received “any information from our intelligence services” that provided evidence of foreign interference in the campaign.

Deputy minister Rob Stewart told the meeting there were, “as you would expect,” activities on social media that would constitute disinformation and attempts to influence votes. “There was no threat to the overall integrity of the election.”

The Canadian Election Misinformation Project, which brought together several academic researchers, found Chinese officials and state media commented on the election with an apparent aim to convince Canadians of Chinese origin to vote against the Conservative party in 2021.

“Misleading information and information critical of certain candidates circulated on Chinese-language social media platforms. However, we find no evidence that Chinese interference had a significant impact on the overall election.”

The Conservatives “could have done a better job” of countering such messaging, Chong said. “Clearly we didn’t, and that’s a lesson learned.”

Even so, the federal government needs to actively counter foreign disinformation between election campaigns, Chong said. During campaigns, the government should make analyses from the Rapid Response Mechanism immediately available to inform the public, he added.

Fen Hampson, a professor of international affairs at Carleton University who closely watches China, agrees that more transparency would be beneficial.

He argues for broadening the analytical process, perhaps through creation of a centre that includes non-governmental players, gathers information from various sources and regularly publishes reports about apparent foreign interference.

“That takes it out of the domestic political arena, which is always going to be highly charged.”

Source: Beijing may have tried to discourage Canadians from voting Conservative: federal unit

Canada should rethink relationship with U.S. as democratic ‘backsliding’ worsens: security experts

Not my area of expertise but significant and needed. Hopefully, government and opposition will listen:

Canada’s intelligence community will have to grapple with the growing influence of anti-democratic forces in the United States — including the threat posed by conservative media outlets like Fox News — says a new report from a task force of intelligence experts.

“The United States is and will remain our closest ally, but it could also become a source of threat and instability,” says a newly published report written by a task force of former national security advisers, former Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) directors, ex-deputy ministers, former ambassadors and academics.

Now is the time for the federal government to rethink how it approaches national security, the report concludes.

The authors — some of whom had access to Canada’s most prized secrets and briefed cabinet on emerging threats — say Canada has become complacent in its national security strategies and is not prepared to tackle threats like Russian and Chinese espionage, the “democratic backsliding” in the United States, a rise in cyberattacks and climate change.

Thomas Juneau, co-director of the task force and associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa, said that while Canada’s right-wing extremism is homegrown, cross-border connections between extremist groups are alarming.

“There are growing transnational ties between right-wing extremists here and in the U.S., the movement of funds, the movement of people, the movement of ideas, the encouragement, the support by media, such as Fox News and other conservative media,” he said.

Convoy was a ‘wakeup call,’ says adviser

“We believe that the threats are quite serious at the moment, that they do impact Canada,” said report co-author Vincent Rigby, who until a few months ago served as the national security adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“We don’t want it to take a crisis for [the] government of Canada to wake up.”

The report he helped write says that one area in need of a policy pivot is Canada’s relationship with the United States.

He pointed to state Sen. Doug Mastriano’s recent win in the Republican primary for governor of Pennsylvania. Mastriano is a well-known proponent of the lie that election fraud caused former president Donald Trump’s loss in 2020.

“There are serious risks of democratic backsliding in the U.S. and at this point, that is not a theoretical risk,” Juneau said.

“So all of that is a serious threat to our sovereignty, to our security, and in some cases, to our democratic institutions … We need to rethink our relationship with the United States.”

The report points to the convoy protest that occupied downtown Ottawa in February and associated blockades in a handful of border towns earlier this winter. What started as a broad protest against COVID-19 restrictions morphed into a even broader rally against government authority itself, with some protesters calling for the overthrow of the elected government.

RCMP said that at the protest site near Coutts, Alta., they seized a cache of weapons; four people now face a charge of conspiracy to murder.

It “should be a wakeup call,” said Rigby.

“We potentially dodged a bullet there. We really did. And we’re hoping that the government and … other levels of government have learned lessons.”

The Canadian protests drew support from politicians in the U.S. and from conservative media outlets, including Fox News, says the report.

“This may not have represented foreign interference in the conventional sense, since it was not the result of actions of a foreign government. But it did represent, arguably, a greater threat to Canadian democracy than the actions of any state other than the United States,” the report says.

“It will be a significant challenge for our national security and intelligence agencies to monitor this threat, since it emanates from the same country that is by far our greatest source of intelligence.”

During the convoy protest, Fox host Tucker Carlson — whose show draws in millions of viewers every night — called Trudeau a “Stalinist dictator” on air and accused him of having “suspended democracy and declared Canada a dictatorship.”

Carlson himself has been under attack recently for pushing the concept of replacement theory — a racist concept that claims white Americans are being deliberately replaced through immigration.

The theory was cited in the manifesto of the 18-year-old man accused in the mass shooting in a predominately Black neighbourhood in Buffalo, N.Y. earlier this month.

The conspiracy theory also has been linked to previous mass shootings, including the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Calls for new national security strategy

“When we think about threats to Canada, we think about the Soviet military threat, we think about al-Qaeda, we think about the rise of China, we think about the war in Ukraine. All of these are true. But so is the rising threat to Canada that the U.S. poses,” said Juneau.

“That’s completely new. That calls for a new way of thinking and new way of managing our relationship with the U.S.”

The conversation with the U.S. doesn’t have be uncomfortable but it does need to happen, said Rigby.

“It certainly would not be couched in a way of, ‘You’re the source of our problems.’ That would not be the conversation. The conversation would be, ‘How can we help each other?'” he said.

“We had those conversations during President Trump’s tenure and business continues. Does it become a little bit more challenging when you have a president like Mr. Trump? Absolutely, without a doubt. But we are still close, close allies.”

It’s why both Rigby and Juneau are hoping the report will spur the government to launch a new national security strategy review — something that hasn’t happened since 2004.

“I know there’s a certain cynicism around producing these strategies … another bulky report that’s going to end up on a shelf and gather dust,” said Rigby.

“But if they’re done properly, they’re done fast and they’re done efficiently and effectively — and our allies have done them — they can work and they’re important.”

The report makes a number of recommendations. It wants a review of CSIS’s enabling legislation, more use of open-source intelligence and efforts to strengthen cyber security. It also urges normally secretive intelligence agencies to be more open with the public by disclosing more intelligence and publishing annual threat assessments.

“There’s a new expanded definition of national security. It’s not your grandparents’ national security,” said Rigby.

“It’s time to step out of the shadows and step up and confront these challenges.”

Source: Canada should rethink relationship with U.S. as democratic ‘backsliding’ worsens: security experts

Feds under fire for deferring decision to declare China’s actions against Uyghurs as genocide

As MPs across the partisan spectrum question why the Canadian government has yet to declare that the Chinese government’s repression of Uyghurs constitutes genocide, Global Affairs says an international court or tribunal must be the one to make the declaration, but international law experts say that’s not the case.

As a state party to the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, more commonly known as the Genocide Convention, Canada has an obligation to declare a genocide is occurring when one is taking place, say international law experts, and deferring such judgement to an international court is nothing more than an excuse to not act.

MPs on the House Foreign Affairs Committee questioned Global Affairs officials on March 28 as to why the government hasn’t made a declaration of genocide more than a year after the House of Commons voted unanimously to declare that a genocide is being committed by China against its Uyghur population and other Turkic Muslims. The non-binding vote, which passed with 266 votes in favour and none against on Feb. 22, 2021, had the support of all parties, including 87 Liberal MPs. Cabinet members, however, abstained from the vote.

A March 2021 report from the Subcommittee on International Human Rights concluded that China is committing genocide as defined under the Genocide Convention. The report was adopted by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. In it, the subcommittee called on the government to declare the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs an act of genocide.

Beijing has long denied that a genocide of Uyghurs is taking place in Xinjiang.

Bloc Québécois MP Stéphane Bergeron (Montarville, Que.), his party’s foreign affairs critic, said in French that Global Affairs has “strangely enough” refused to acknowledge that genocide is taking place.

“It’s as if everything that is obvious for many people, including for Parliamentarians in Canada, was not for Global Affairs,” he said at the committee on March 28, asking what is stopping Canada from recognizing that a genocide is taking place.

Global Affairs official Jennie Chen, executive director for Greater China Policy and Coordination, said a declaration of genocide is one for the government to make, and officials will provide advice to ministers “when that time comes.”

But later in the committee hearing, Global Affairs director general and deputy legal adviser Carolyn Knobel said a “determination of whether a situation constitutes a genocide must be done by a competent international court or a tribunal, bearing in mind the complex legal thresholds that are involved.”

Knobel suggested that finding “specific intent” to commit genocide is “key” to making such a determination. She said without a finding of “specific intent,” breaches of international law would instead amount to crimes against humanity, or war crimes.

The Hill Times asked Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly’s (Ahuntsic-Cartierville, Que.) office whether the government believes that only an international court or tribunal can determine whether a genocide has taken place. A spokesperson for Global Affairs responded on behalf of the minister’s office.

“We have the responsibility to work with others in the international community in ensuring that any allegations of genocide are investigated by an independent international body of legal experts,” spokesperson Christelle Chartrand said in an email, noting that Canada is “deeply disturbed” by reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang.

Chartrand said Canada has “repeatedly” called on Beijing to allow the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and UN Special Procedures to have “immediate, unfettered, and meaningful access to Xinjiang.” 

In 2018, the Canadian government recognized Myanmar’s persecution against the Rohingya as an act of genocide through a motion in the House, which was supported by cabinet ministers. No international court or tribunal had made that determination at the time. A case under the Genocide Convention is currently before the International Court of Justice.

Speaking at the House Foreign Affairs Committee on March 24, Joly said Canada takes allegations of genocide “very seriously, particularly in the Xinjiang Uyghur region,” noting that was a reason Canada did not send elected officials to the Beijing Olympics in February.

The U.S. government under then-president Donald Trump declared in 2021 that a genocide was taking place in Xinjiang. That determination has been upheld by the Biden administration.

Conservative MP Garnett Genuis (Sherwood Park-Fort Saskatchewan, Alta.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill Times that the government’s delay in recognizing the situation as a genocide is “totally unacceptable.”

He said when the Subcommittee on International Human Rights conducted its study, it heard from many international law experts, including former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler, who made the case that nation states that are parties to the Genocide Convention have an obligation to recognize genocide when it is happening and to discharge their obligations under the convention.

“Canada has been failing to live up to its obligations under the Genocide Convention. It is an obfuscation and a denial of our responsibilities for the government to suggest that we shouldn’t act unless or until there is some determination by some to-be-identified international body,” he said. “Fundamentally, Canada’s responsibilities as a state party under the Genocide Convention are clear: it is to recognize and respond to genocide when it has happened, not to wait for somebody else to tell us first.”

Genuis said the government’s lack of determination to date is a decision in itself.

“The effect of continually saying that they are thinking about it is to not act,” he said.

Liberal MP Sameer Zuberi (Pierrefonds-Dollard, Que.), who subbed in at the March 28 committee meeting, told The Hill Times that while he understands why the government wants to wait on an international court to determine whether genocide is taking place, he stands by the subcommittee’s designation and his support for the House motion to recognize genocide.

“I believe that where we should be going as a country is to recognize that genocide is occurring,” he said, noting it would be “good” if the Canadian government follows the U.S. government’s lead.

Zuberi said in their testimony, Global Affairs officials recognized that hundreds of thousands of children are being separated from families, which he said is “one of the key elements of genocide.”

“So, I’m hopeful that we will land there as a country,” he said, adding that each country should make its own legal determination of whether a genocide is taking place. “Our determination doesn’t necessarily rest on those international [bodies] to determine genocide is in fact occurring.”

In the meantime, he said more can be done to prevent goods made with forced labour from entering the Canadian market.

Experts dispute the government’s position that it’s up to international courts and tribunals to determine whether a situation is genocide.

“[The government doesn’t] want to act. Their position is ‘we don’t know—we can’t really say, we’re not really sure, and therefore business as unusual. We can trade [and] and we can do all sorts of things.’ They’re avoiding their obligation,” said John Packer, the University of Ottawa’s Human Rights Research and Education Centre director.

“The Genocide Convention actually prescribes that states are supposed to act to prevent,” he said, noting that includes cases where there is an active genocide, or a risk of genocide. “If the argument of the government is that we can’t do anything until there’s a determination by the court of law, that’s post facto. That means you never have prevention. … ‘Never again’ becomes ‘forever always,’ because you’ve missed the whole raison d’etre of the thing.”

Packer said there is no provision or law that dictates that an international court must be the body to declare whether a genocide is taking place, and said a state must make that determination itself before bringing an action before an international court.

“In order to bring a case, you must allege a case, and to allege a case in international law means that you must determine that there is a breach,” he said.

International human rights lawyer Sarah Teich, a senior fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, echoed Packer, saying the Canadian government has an obligation to act.

“If you look at the Genocide Convention, nowhere does it say that that an international court must declare genocide before it can do anything,” she said, noting that Canada, as a state party of the convention, has treaty obligations to punish genocide.

If Canada waits on international courts to declare a situation to be genocide, it would probably be in breach of its obligations, Teich said, adding that it’s “long overdue” for Canada to declare the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghurs as genocide.

“If Canada is so concerned about wanting it to come from an international court, then Canada should refer the situation to an international court and start taking those steps. But we don’t actually see that happening,” she said. “This is another indicator that really this is kind of just an excuse.”

Mehmet Tohti, executive director of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project, said that by citing the need for an international court determination, the Canadian government is not upholding its “international legal responsibility to prevent genocide, and prosecute those responsible for genocide and protect the vulnerable victims of genocide.”

Tohti said it’s “troubling” that the government is still focused on pushing for an independent investigation, as Beijing hasn’t allowed unfettered access to Xinjiang. He said he has little optimism for UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet’s visit to China in May.

“The Chinese government has made clear to the high commissioner that there is no unfettered access, meaning she cannot go wherever she wants to go. She cannot visit the places she wants to visit. And she cannot talk with the people she wants to talk,” he said.

Liberal MP Ali Ehsassi (Willowdale, Ont.), chair of the Subcommittee on International Human Rights, asked Global Affairs officials at the House Foreign Affairs Committee last week why a declaration of genocide has taken so long after the House voted in favour of recognizing the situation as genocide.

In her testimony, Chen said the government is looking forward to Bachelet’s visit to China. “What’s been important for us is it has been an independent investigation by international experts. This has long been our position for many years now,” she said.

Bergeron called Canada’s stance “bipolar,” while Genuis said there is a “clear divergence between the legislative branch and the executive” in declaring whether a genocide is taking place.

“It is frustrating for me, it’s frustrating for Liberal MPs, and it’s frustrating for Canadians because Canadians elect Members of Parliament. They don’t elect the executive, but the legislative branch is supposed to hold the executive accountable for the steps they’re taking and the executive has been able to get away with inaction,” he said.


Source: Feds under fire for deferring decision to declare China’s actions against Uyghurs as genocide

China tightens restrictions and bars scholars from international conferences

Further restrictions of note:

The international conference was supposed to gather some of the most promising and most established Asia studies scholars from across the world in lush Honolulu.

Instead, at least five Chinese scholars based in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) were prevented from attending virtual events via Zoom, according to four people with direct knowledge of the matter.

They said Chinese security officers and education officials directly intervened, citing education regulations published during a global coronavirus pandemic which require all Chinese scholars to receive university permission to attend any international event in-person or online.

“After years of encouraging and funding PRC scholars to participate internationally, the intensifying controls of recent years are now full-scale, and academic work, at least on China, is to be quarantined from the world,” saidJames Millward, a history professor at Georgetown University who attended the conference. “The doors have slammed shut fast.”

The conference, which ended last weekend, was an annual gathering organized by the Association for Asian Studies (AAS), one of the largest membership-based organizations in the field. For emerging scholars as well as more senior academics, the conference is an opportunity to network and to hear the latest research on Asian countries across a variety of disciplines.

Because of the ongoing COVID pandemic, AAS decided this year to hold a mix of in-person events and online-only panels.

In one case, a group of police officers visited the home of a scholar in China after they had presented their research paper to an online Zoom panel earlier in the week, questioning the scholar for hours, in part because they considered the title of the paper “incorrect.”

“It was deeply frightening,” said one academic who attended the panel but requested anonymity to protect the identity of the scholar involved.

NPR reviewed the paper but is not publishing its title or subject to protect the identity of the writer. The paper did not touch on subjects which Chinese authorities normally consider sensitive, such as human rights, Tibet, Xinjiang or Hong Kong.

Chinese scholars on a separate virtual panel were also told by Chinese university administrators to cancel their presentations. Eventually, they emailed the other attendees to withdraw from the panel due to “medical reasons” but hoped to partake in AAS events again “in less sensitive times,” according to two people with direct knowledge of the incident.

“Topics that have seemingly been considered nonpolitical are now being yanked or deemed not permissible to be exchanging with international colleagues,” said another academic who attended the panel who also did not want to be named so as not to identify the Chinese scholars impacted.

Strict COVID prevention policies had already stymied the volume of intellectual exchanges between the PRC and the rest of the world. Those who study China have found themselves isolated by border closures that have made travel to and from China nearly impossible, rendering archives and field sites in China inaccessible for the last two years and counting.

Since 2016, China’s education ministry has required its academics to seek university approval for all overseas trips and collaborations. In September 2020, universities began applying these rules for online events held by international organizations, as well, though such rules had not been extensively enforced until now.

Academics say these controls will further deplete the already-sparse exchanges between China and the rest of the world while hobbling the careers of young Chinese scholars.

“We have already been anxious, because for those of us in modern China studies, it’s been two years with no end in sight about when we might be able to return to the archives,” said a third academic who went to the AAS conference. “You keep thinking maybe things will get better, so after the [Winter] Olympics, after [October’s Chinese Communist] Party Congress, there will be a loosening of restrictions, but unfortunately it continues to worsen.”

The AAS said it was aware some PRC-based scholars were prevented from attending and now is trying to ascertain exactly how many scholars were impacted. “The AAS firmly supports the right of scholars worldwide to take part in the free exchange of ideas and research through conferences and other forms of academic cooperation,” the association said in a statement posted on its website Wednesday.

AAS has previously come under heightened scrutiny within China. In March 2021, the Chinese Foreign Ministry sanctioned a member of one of AAS’ governing councils because of her research examining Chinese state policy in the region of Xinjiang, where authorities had detained hundreds of thousands of mostly ethnic Uyghurs. The academic, Joanne Smith Finley, had organized two panels on Xinjiang for the annual AAS conference just days earlier.

Source: China tightens restrictions and bars scholars from international conferences

Cohen: Ukraine forces us to see the world’s problems more clearly


Over the last fortnight, the invasion of Ukraine has brought thousands of deaths, the decimation of the country’s industry and commerce, a plague of widespread homelessness and hunger, and the dislocation of some two million people.

If Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to destroy Ukraine to save it, he’s succeeding. With every advance, he tarnishes his prize and strengthens the resistance. He may raze Ukraine but he won’t beat it.

Welcome to the insurgency, Mr. Putin. This is your Afghanistan. Your victory, whenever you dare declare it, will be pyrrhic.

For the world watching in horror, two weeks of war is a hard shot to the solar plexus. It has winded us. But let’s be grateful: the conflict has become a moral struggle around the world that has forced us to see ourselves with refreshing clarity.

Suddenly, freedom looks different. Ukraine throws into sharp relief, for example, the cries of those protesters on Parliament Hill last month. Had the war broken out earlier, their big complaint would have been ridiculed rather than tolerated for as long as it was.

As Ukrainians hide underground from relentless shelling, as the heater dies, the line goes dead and the grocery shelves empty, their plight puts our grievances in new light. These grievances look petty, small and narcissistic; the “freedom from vaccines” that has roiled Canada suggests the paranoia of a snowflake society.

Note to anti-vaxxers: no one forced you to take the vaccine. You are not being sterilized like millions in India in the mid-1970s. Yes, vaccination was a condition of crossing the border in a truck, a job you were free to leave, in a near full-employment economy, for another line of work.

Ukraine reshapes the narrative of our little melodrama. The “occupation” of Ottawa? “Journalism under Siege” was a recent lively public forum in Ottawa that ignored the mortal danger to journalists in Ukraine. Well, it’s all relative, isn’t it?

Ukrainians understand freedom well: freedom from war, privation, starvation and death. They fight for the freedom to survive as an autonomous people. Their defiance is heroic.

Here, our shallow, showy discourse mocks freedom. MP Leslyn Lewis, a woman of colour who is a social conservative, rants about “a socialist coup” in Canada. With faux outrage, she claims the media is trying to “lynch me into silence” as she’s forced “to sit in the back of the bus.”

Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks understood freedom when they led a year-long boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, to avoid sitting in the back of the bus. Medgar Evers, Aaron Henry, Robert Moses and other brave Mississippians challenged a regime of lynching that killed Blacks in their state. From the comfort of Canada in 2022, Lewis looks woolly-minded.

Ukraine, and the horror it represents, clarifies everything. It gives moral licence to cancel culture. In Russia, we can cancel a leader and a country doing horrible things, and we should.

Putin’s war is a corrective to obsessions that have assumed outsized influence. When people are dying, assertions of “cultural appropriation” seem less outrageous, “trigger warnings” less urgent, “safe spaces” less necessary.

Will sensible Americans tolerate their representatives debating lifting “racist” names off schools in San Francisco (Abraham Lincoln, Robert Louis Stevenson and George Washington among them) when Russians are lifting the roofs off Ukrainian schools?

Already, Ukraine is changing perceptions of leaders. The war will probably rescue Boris Johnson, re-elect Emmanuel Macron, revive Joe Biden and most of all, deify Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Hell, it might even make a statesman of Justin Trudeau, Canada’s purveyor of “non-lethal weapons,” who has shown little interest in the world.

Why? Quite simply, because things that mattered before don’t matter now.

Ukraine marks the end of “the end of history,” the conventional wisdom of the 1990s. Ukraine is the revenge of history: a return to the Cold War after the collapse of Communism and the spread of democracy.

Now, as the threat of nuclear war returns, so does a more serious culture, rinsed of superficiality, self-indulgence and hyperbole.

Source: Cohen: Ukraine forces us to see the world’s problems more clearly

West targets Russia’s elite by limiting ‘golden passport’ citizenship sales as it applies pressure on the coun

Of note, along with other measures. Eliminating ‘golden passport’ citizenship should be permanent, not just for Russian oligarchs:

Western leaders are increasing the pressure on Russia by imposing further economic measures that target the country’s wealthiest.

In a joint statement published by the European Commission on Saturday, the US, UK, Europe, and Canada announced they will limit the sale of “golden passports,” which enables Russia’s richest individuals to invest in a country in exchange for citizenship.

Western allies wrote in the statement: “We commit to taking measures to limit the sale of citizenship—so called golden passports—that let wealthy Russians connected to the Russian government become citizens of our countries and gain access to our financial systems.”

The move comes in response to Russia’s attack on Ukraine early Thursday morning, in what was termed a “full-scale” invasion.

President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said in a tweet that the measures intend to “cripple Putin’s ability to finance his war machine.”

She added: “Putin embarked on a path aiming to destroy Ukraine. But what he is also doing, in fact, is destroying the future of his own country.”

A golden passport comes with multiple benefits, which Russia’s elite now stand to lose. This includes freedom of movement within the Schengen Zone for all family members.

The new wave of sanctions comes immediately after Western forces announced that select Russian banks will be ejected from the SWIFT banking system. The decision underscored a change of stance from some countries that initially opposed Russia’s removal from SWIFT.

For example, Germany’s foreign minister said Friday she did not believe a ban was the best course of action, per Reuters.

In the Saturday statement, the US, UK, Europe, and Canada vowed to “collectively ensure that this war is a strategic failure for Putin” with the new penalties.

Source: West targets Russia’s elite by limiting ‘golden passport’ citizenship sales as it applies pressure on the country

Human rights? China won that Winter Olympics battle. Almost.

Time for Canadian Olympians and sport officials to speak up:

When three-time Olympian Gus Kenworthy took the remarkable, perhaps even brave decision to speak out against “human rights atrocities” while still in China at the Winter Games, the self-proclaimed “loud and obnoxious” British skier also proved that other athletes, had they chosen, perhaps could have used their Olympic platform to pipe up, too.

Because Kenworthy wasn’t hauled away and imprisoned, as Chinese critics of the ruling Communist Party routinely are. Doing so would have generated exactly the sort of global focus on the Chinese government’s authoritarian methods that it sought to avoid while global sports’ biggest show was in town. 

And with the notable exception of Kenworthy, China largely accomplished that mission. 

Olympians with any qualms about chasing medals in a country accused of genocide against its Muslim Uyghur population and of other abuses kept their views on those topics to themselves for the durations of their stay. And perhaps for good reason: They faced vague but, as it turned out, undeployed Chinese threats of punishment, constant surveillance and the sobering example of tennis star Peng Shuai’s difficulties after she voiced allegations of forced sex against a Communist Party official.

“We have seen an effective silencing of 2,800 athletes, and that’s scary,” said Noah Hoffman, a former U.S. Olympic skier and board member of the Global Athlete advocacy group pushing for Olympic reform.

Kenworthy, speaking to The Associated Press before his 8th-place finish in the halfpipe final on the Games’ penultimate day, laid out why.

“We’re in China, so we play by China’s rules. And China makes their rules as they go, and they certainly have the power to kind of do whatever they want: Hold an athlete, stop an athlete from leaving, stop an athlete from competing,” he said.

“I’ve also been advised to sort of tread lightly while I am here and that’s what I am trying to do.”

Immediately after competing, however, the proudly gay athlete’s gloves came off. 

He prefaced criticism with praise for China’s “incredible job with this Olympics” and carefully calibrated his words. But unlike other Olympians, he couldn’t bite his tongue until he got home. Kenworthy aimed jabs not only at the host country’s rights abuses and “poor stance on LGBTQ rights” but also at other athletes he said try “to appeal to the masses” and avoid ruffling feathers. 

“I’ve already kind of accepted that that’s not what I’m gonna do,” he said. “I’m just gonna speak my truth.” 

In fairness, Olympians found themselves squeezed on all sides in Beijing. Campaigners abroad hoped they would spark global outrage over the imprisonment in re-education camps of an estimated 1 million people or more, most of them Uyghurs. China, backed to the hilt by the International Olympic Committee, didn’t want critical voices to be heard. And their own voices told athletes to focus, focus, focus on the pursuit of Olympic success that they, their coaches and families sacrificed for.

The sweep and vagueness of a Chinese official’s threat before the Games of “certain punishment” for “any behavior or speech that is against the Olympic spirit” appeared to have a particularly sobering effect on Beijing-bound teams. Campaigners who met with athletes in the United States in the weeks before their departure, lobbying them about Uyghurs and the crushing of dissent in Tibet and Hong Kong, noticed the chill.

“Prior to the statement, we had been engaging with quite a few athletes,” said Pema Doma, campaigns director at Students for a Free Tibet. They “were expressing a lot of interest in learning more and being engaged in the human rights issue.” 

Afterward, “there was a very, very distinct difference” and “one athlete even said to an activist directly: ‘I’ve been instructed not to take anything from you or speak to you,’” she said in a phone interview.

Other concerns also weighed on Olympians, way beyond the usual anxieties that often come with travel to a foreign land, away from home comforts.

Warnings of possible cyber-snooping by Chinese security services and team advisories that athletes leave electronic devices at home were alarming for a generation weaned on social media and constant connectivity with their worlds. 

Also wearing were daily coronavirus tests that were mandatory — and invasive, taken with swabs to the back of the throat — for all Olympians, locked inside a tightly policed bubble of health restrictions to prevent infection spreads. The penalty for testing positive was possible quarantine and missed competition, a terrible blow for winter athletes who often toil outside of the limelight, except every four years at the Games.

“Who knows where those tests go, who handles the results,” Kenworthy said. “It’s definitely in the back of the mind.”

“And there’s like all the cybersecurity stuff. It is concerning,” he told The AP.

Often, athletes simply blanked when asked about human rights, saying they weren’t qualified to speak on the issue or were focused on competition, and hunkered down. 

On Twitter, Dutch speedskater Sanne in ’t Hof blocked, unblocked and then blocked again a Uyghur living in the Netherlands who posted critical comments of Olympians in what he called “genocide” Games. Mirehmet Ablet shared a screengrab with The AP showing that the skater had barred him from accessing her account, where she tweeted that she “enjoyed every second!′ of her first Olympics. Ablet’s brother was arrested in 2017 in the Uyghur homeland of Xinjiang in far western China, and Ablet doesn’t know where he’s now held.

Other athletes also were effusive in praising their China experience. “Nothing short of amazing,” said U.S. speedskating bronze-medal winner Brittany Bowe. 

Hoffman, who competed for the U.S. at the 2014 and 2018 Games, said internal politics within teams may also have dissuaded athletes from speaking critically. Coaches can bench athletes who bring unwanted attention and “there’s pressure from your teammates to not cause a distraction,” he said in a phone interview. Athletes with self-confidence dented by sub-par performances may also have felt that they’d lost any platform.

“There’s lots of really subtle pressure,” Hoffman said. 

He expects some athletes won’t be critical once home, so as to not disrespect the cheerful and helpful Games workers.

But he’s hopeful others will speak up on their return and that “we do get a chorus.” 

Feeling unmuzzled, some already are. 

Back in Sweden with his two gold medals in speedskating, Nils van der Poel told the Aftonbladet newspaper that although he had “a very nice experience behind the scenes,” hosting the Games in China was “terrible.” He drew parallels with the 1936 Summer Olympics in Nazi Germany and Russia hosting the Sochi Olympics before seizing control of the Crimean peninsula in 2014. 

“It is extremely irresponsible,” van der Poel said, ”to give it to a country that violates human rights as clearly as the Chinese regime does.”

Source: Human rights? China won that Winter Olympics battle. Almost.

For Companies, Winning in China Now Means Losing Somewhere Else

Should be an awaking, both given Chinese government repression and the IOC various wilful blindnesses:

Companies usually shell out for Olympic sponsorship because it helps their business and reflects well on their brands. But this year, with the Olympics in Beijing, Procter & Gamble paid even more to try to prevent any negative fallout from being associated with China’s repressive and authoritarian government.

The company, one of 13 “worldwide Olympic partners” that make the global sports competition possible, hired Washington lobbyists last year to successfully defeat legislation that would have barred sponsors of the Beijing Games from selling their products to the U.S. government. The provision would have blocked Pampers, Tide, Pringles and other Procter & Gamble products from military commissaries, to protest companies’ involvement in an event seen as legitimizing the Chinese government.

“This amendment would punish P.&G. and the Olympic movement, including U.S. athletes,” Sean Mulvaney, the senior director for global government relations at Procter & Gamble, wrote in an email to congressional offices in August.

Some of the world’s biggest companies are caught in an uncomfortable situation as they attempt to straddle a widening political gulf between the United States and China: What is good for business in one country is increasingly a liability in the other.

China is the world’s biggest consumer market, and for decades, Chinese and American business interests have described their economic cooperation as a “win-win relationship.” But gradually, as China’s economic and military might have grown, Washington has taken the view that a win for China is a loss for the United States.

The decision to locate the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing has turned sponsorship, typically one of the marketing industry’s most prestigious opportunities, into a minefield.

Companies that have sponsored the Olympics have attracted censure from politicians and human rights groups, who say such contracts imply tacit support of atrocities by the Chinese Communist Party, including human rights violations in Xinjiang, censorship of the media and mass surveillance of dissidents.

“One thing our businesses, universities and sports leagues don’t seem to fully understand is that, to eat at the C.C.P.’s trough, you will have to turn into a pig,” Yaxue Cao, editor of, a website that covers civil society and human rights, told Congressthis month.

The tension is playing out in other areas as well, including with regards to Xinjiang, where millions of ethnic minorities have been detained, persecuted or forced into working in fields and factories. In June, the United States will enact a sweeping law that will expand restrictions on Xinjiang, giving the United States power to block imports made with any materials sourced from that region.

Multinational firms that are trying to comply with these new import restrictions have found themselves facing costly backlashes in China, which denies any accusations of genocide. H&M, Nikeand Intel have all blundered into public relations disasters for trying to remove Xinjiang from their supply chains.

Harsher penalties could be in store. Companies that try to sever ties with Xinjiang may run afoul of China’s anti-sanctions law, which allows the authorities to crack down on firms that comply with foreign regulations they see as discriminating against China.

Beijing has also threatened to put companies that cut off supplies to China on an “unreliable entity list” that could result in penalties, though to date the list doesn’t appear to have any members.

“Companies are between a rock and a hard place when it comes to complying with U.S. and Chinese law,” said Jake Colvin, the president of the National Foreign Trade Council, which represents companies that do business internationally.

President Biden, while less antagonistic than his predecessor, has maintained many of the tough policies put in place by President Donald J. Trump, including hefty tariffs on Chinese goods and restrictions on exports of sensitive technology to Chinese firms.

The Biden administration has shown little interest in forging trade deals to help companies do more business abroad. Instead, it is recruiting allies to ramp up pressure on China, including by boycotting the Olympics, and promoting huge investments in manufacturing and scientific research to compete with Beijing. 

The pressures are not only coming from the United States. Companies are increasingly facing a complicated global patchwork of export restrictions and data storage laws, including in the European Union. Chinese leaders have begun pursuing “wolf warrior” diplomacy, in which they are trying to teach other countries to think twice before crossing China, said Jim McGregor, chairman of APCO Worldwide’s greater China region.

He said his company was telling clients to “try to comply with everybody, but don’t make a lot of noise about it — because if you’re noisy about complying in one country, the other country will come after you.”

Some companies are responding by moving sensitive activities — like research that could trigger China’s anti-sanctions law, or audits of Xinjiang operations — out of China, said Isaac Stone Fish, the chief executive of Strategy Risks, a consultancy.

Others, like Cisco, have scaled back their operations. Some have left China entirely, though usually not on terms they would choose. For example, Micron Technology, a chip-maker that has been a victim of intellectual property theft in China, is closing down a chip design team in Shanghai after competitors poached its employees.

“Some companies are taking a step back and realizing that this is perhaps more trouble than it’s worth,” Mr. Stone Fish said.

But many companies insist that they can’t be forced to choose between two of the world’s largest markets. Tesla, which counts China as one of its largest markets, opened a showroom in Xinjianglast month.

“We can’t leave China, because China represents in some industries up to 50 percent of global demand and we have intense, deep supply and sales relationships,” said Craig Allen, the president of the U.S.-China Business Council.

Companies see China as a foothold to serve Asia, Mr. Allen said, and China’s $17 trillion economy still presents “some of the best growth prospects anywhere.”

“Very few companies are leaving China, but all are feeling that it’s risk up and that they need to be very careful so as to meet their legal obligations in both markets,” he said.

American politicians of both parties are increasingly bent on forcing companies to pick a side.

“To me, it’s completely appropriate to make these companies choose,” said Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican who proposed the bill that would have prevented Olympic sponsors from doing business with the U.S. government.

Mr. Waltz said participation in the Beijing Olympics sent a signal that the West was willing to turn a blind eye to Chinese atrocities for short-term profits.

The amendment was ultimately cut out of a defense-spending bill last year after active and aggressive lobbying by Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, Intel, NBC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others, Mr. Waltz said.

Procter & Gamble’s lobbying disclosures show that, between April and December, it spent more than $2.4 million on in-house and outside lobbyists to try to sway Congress on a range of tax and trade issues, including the Beijing Winter Olympics Sponsor Accountability Act.

Lobbying disclosures for Coca-Cola, Airbnb and Comcast, the parent company of NBC, also indicate the companies lobbied on issues related to the Olympics or “sports programming” last year.

Procter & Gamble and Intel declined to comment. Coca-Cola said it had explained to lawmakers that the legislation would hurt American military families and businesses. NBC and the Chamber of Commerce did not respond to requests for comment.

Many companies have argued they are sponsoring this year’s Games to show support for the athletes, not China’s system of government.

In a July congressional hearing, where executives from Coca-Cola, Intel, Visa and Airbnb were also grilled about their sponsorship, Mr. Mulvaney said Procter & Gamble was using its partnership to encourage the International Olympic Committee to incorporate human rights principles into its oversight of the Games.

“Corporate sponsors are being a bit unfairly maligned here,” Anna Ashton, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in an event hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

Companies had signed contracts to support multiple iterations of the Games, and had no say over the host location, she said. And the funding they provide goes to support the Olympics and the athletes, not the Chinese government.

“Sponsorship has hardly been an opportunity for companies this time around,” she said. 

Source: For Companies, Winning in China Now Means Losing Somewhere Else

Livermore, Welsh and Party: Ottawa shirking duty to help Canadians stuck abroad

The rhetoric versus the reality of consular assistance:

There is little that is more predictable than the soothing words spoken by Canadian governments when citizens are in difficulty in foreign countries. “We are fully aware;” “we are working to help;” and “we are doing everything to see them back safely in Canada” are among the familiar refrains.

For many Canadians in serious difficulty, the reality is different. Serious problems are not resolved quickly, communications and transportation are often difficult, legal problems are complex and even longer than in Canada to resolve, and frequently foreign governments do not see the problems of Canadians as warranting urgent action.

There are daily stories and reminders of such experiences and as recent ones demonstrate they are often matters of life and death. Since the 2015 election of the Trudeau government, there have been three deadly and tragic stories. In each, the actions—or lack thereof—by the government have contributed to the problems.

In 2016 two Canadians, John Ridsdel and Robert Hall, were executed in the southern Philippines when the government refused to initiate appropriate and available action to obtain their release from kidnappers. Two other Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, between 2018 and 2021, spent more than 1,000 days in the prisons of China. Ottawa, once again, refused to initiate appropriate and legal action to see them freed and returned home. It was the action of the United States that led to their release.

Today, nearly 50 Canadian children, women, and men have spent over two years in “filthy, deeply degrading, life-threatening, and often inhuman conditions” in detention centres in northern Iraq and Syria, in the words of Human Rights Watch 2021 annual report. Again, the Canadian government has refused to take action to have these Canadians returned to Canada.

This, despite the willingness of the authorities administering the detainees to have the Canadians returned. As well, other governments, including the United States and allies in Europe and elsewhere, have made arrangements for the repatriation of their citizens from the same areas. The United Nations and the House Foreign Affairs Committee have urged Canada to “pursue all options possible” to repatriate its citizens with the UN placing Canada on a “list of shame” for its lack of action.

So far only a four-year-old child has returned to Canada, initially without her mother, but in the face of court action, the mother was issued a passport and returned home. Who made the arrangements for this child? Not Canadian authorities but a former American diplomat who went to the region and made the arrangements.

Some of these Canadians have now filed an application with the Federal Court seeking relief from the lack of action by the Canadian government. The case is yet to be heard but it is hoped the court will force the government to take the necessary action to have these Canadians returned home using the mobility and legal rights guaranteed by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The government argues it is too dangerous for Canadian officials to go to the region to make the arrangements for the repatriations. This is fallacious—other governments go to the region; international humanitarian organizations operate in the area daily; and the authorities administering the regions are willing and able to assist. But the government maintains Canadian officials are without the ability to do so.

The government’s reasons for not helping are specious and are meant to disguise its complete unwillingness to help this specific group of Canadians. They are the reminders of the thousands of foreigners who rushed to the region in support of the early success of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (IS/Daesh) in 2014. Countering military action by local governments supported by the United States and Russia put an end to IS in the region.

Thousands of the intervening foreign nationals were killed and thousands of other, and women and children, especially, were detained. For the most part, only the Canadians have been refused help by their government. In doing so, Ottawa conveniently ignores these persons are Canadians and are legally entitled to the support and assistance.

The government’s position finds some measure of public support and, importantly, both the RCMP and CSIS oppose the return of these detainees to Canada citing the impact on their responsibilities. Both organizations have a long history of opposing support for Canadians who have travelled to countries in conflict, some for legitimate reasons and others, like the detainees in Iraq and Syria, for misconstrued or illegal reasons. The RCMP and CSIS ignore the scope within our criminal justice systems for possible punishment in Canada.

Investigations by commissions of inquiry and various court applications provided ample examples of this opposition by the RCMP and CSIS. But tens of millions of dollars have been paid to the victims of this opposition and more is pending. For the small group of Canadians in Iraq and Syria it is now time for the government to accept its obligations and make the arrangements for their return to Canada.

Discretion must not be a cover for discrimination.

Dan Livermore is the former director general for security and intelligence. Michael Welsh and Gar Pardy are former directors general for consular services.  All three have served as ambassadors or high commissioners.   

Source: Ottawa shirking duty to help Canadians stuck abroad

Netherlands: University funding row raises Chinese influence fears

Not unique to the Netherlands:

The Free University of Amsterdam (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam or VU Amsterdam) in the Netherlands has said it will return Chinese funding for its Cross Cultural Human Rights Centre (CCHRC) after an embarrassing row over Chinese influence on academia when it emerged that several of the centre’s academics publicly denied China oppresses Uyghur peoples.

But the row in the Netherlands amid other recent controversies over Chinese funding of university centres and Confucius Institutes in Germany and the United Kingdom has also made university disclosure of foreign funding more urgent, academics said. 

In 2018, 2019 and 2020, the CCHRC at VU Amsterdam received a subsidy of between €250,000 (US$282,000) and €300,000 (US$339,000) from the Southwest University of Political Science and Law in Chongqing, China. 

According to documents obtained by Dutch broadcaster NOS, the Chinese university was the sole financial contributor to the CCHRC during those years, which has raised eyebrows. 

VU Amsterdam has said it would return the money it had already received from China for this year, NOS revealed last week. But the university only backed down after the damaging revelations prompted a public outcry and strong statements by the Dutch education minister and others condemning the activities of the centre. 

On Wednesday NOS said the activities of the Centre were being suspended, with all its lectures for students cancelled, ascribing the decision to the executive board and deans of the university. The Centre’s activities were already in doubt after the return of funds, making it dependent on the university or other donors for its continued survival. 

The row blew up just as the Dutch education ministry is due to present its National Guidelines on Knowledge Security on 31 January and to announce its ‘Government-wide knowledge security front-office’, which is expected to have an advisory role and support universities in identifying risks. 

It also followed the publication last week of the European Commission ‘toolkit’ for universities on how to deal with foreign interference. 

Dutch Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf responded swiftly and unequivocally to the report, saying he was “very shocked” that the funding arrangement signalled possible academic dependence. 

“It is urgent and sensible that the Free University now takes action quickly. Scientific core values such as academic freedom, integrity and independence must always be guaranteed,” he said in a statement. 

The minister added: “It is important that Dutch knowledge institutions are and remain alert to possible risks of undesired influence by other countries and that they take adequate measures to safeguard academic core values, especially when it comes to universal values like human rights.”

The centre runs an academic journal and organises conferences. Its mission, laid down in the financing agreement with the Chinese university, is to draw attention to a “global view of human rights”, and specifically to the way in which non-Western countries such as China view human rights.

University’s lukewarm initial response

After a lukewarm initial response when the university merely underlined that “as befits the Free University, the research of the CCHRC is independent, interdisciplinary, dialogical and socially relevant”, it added to its statement just hours later, saying “even the appearance of dependence is unacceptable” and announced that it was “taking appropriate measures”, including halting the funding from China. 

The university said it has not yet decided whether it will also refund subsidies from previous years, but it said it would first conduct an investigation to determine “whether the independence of the institute’s research has been safeguarded on all fronts”.

The CCHRC website noted in October 2020 that a delegation of people affiliated to the centre ‘recently’ visited the western Chinese region of Xinjiang. 

Western researchers estimate that over a million ethnic minority Uyghurs are being held in  ‘re-education camps’, widely regarded as a euphemism for concentration camps, in Xinjiang. Several countries, including the United States, have accused China of genocide against the Uyghurs. 

However, the CCHRC website noted: “The situation we encountered in the four cities in this trip did not reflect the grim situation as depicted in the Western reports. There is definitely no discrimination of Uyghurs or other minorities in the region.”

CCHRC Director Tom Zwart, who is also a frequent guest at Chinese state events and on Chinese state television, told NOS any similarities between the centre’s positions online and those of the Communist Party were “coincidental” and were not steered by any direct influence. 

Zwart described the CCHRC website as a place for “uncensored free thought”, ascribing the comments on its webpages to individuals “who do not represent the organisation as a whole”.

On 26 January CCHRC released a new statement on its website saying the website would be “temporarily taken offline” in order “to check whether a sufficiently clear distinction is made between statements made on behalf of the Centre and opinions and observations made in a personal capacity.”

It added: “[The] Centre explicitly endorses the conclusions of the United Nations regarding the systematic violation of the Uyghur human rights. In this vein, the Centre’s director, in the presence of members of the Chinese State Council and the Politburo, called on 8 April 2021 to respect and protect the rights of Uyghurs and stop repressive anti-terrorism policies.”

Is academic freedom compromised?

Ingrid d’Hooghe, an expert on China-Europe relations and senior research fellow at the Leiden Asia Centre, Leiden University in the Netherlands, said: “The director of the Centre said in an interview which was also on TV that they were fully independent, there was nothing that made them say what they were saying. But apparently it did not cross their mind that even if they are independent, it doesn’t look like it.”

Dutch academic Lokman Tsui, a researcher on digital freedoms and a former assistant professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said via Twitter: “Important to note: until this year, they [the university in Chongqing] were the only funder. Problematic, because it’s hard to be independent if your research centre relies on one single funder. Problematic also, because public universities in China are closely affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party.”

Tsui added: “But whether the research centre is independent or not is also beside the question. The more important question is: Why is the university allowing its integrity and its reputation to be compromised by accepting money meant to validate China’s atrocious human rights record?”

Andreas Fulda, associate professor at the University of Nottingham, UK, and an expert on Europe-China relations and academic freedom, said: “If they had also received funding from the Dutch government or from the EU or whoever else, they could say they are not dependent on just one funder. But if you’re completely dependent on one funder and you lose autonomy, you are more likely to bend your research in one way or another.” 

“A member of the Dutch public will not know whether this [research] is the genuine article or whether this is something that is deeply problematic – this is the area where we enter the field of idea laundering and reputation laundering [by China],” Fulda told University World News

Need for disclosure legislation

“We need legislation that universities have to make funding public,” Fulda said, pointing to Section 117 of the United States Higher Education Act which requires universities that receive foreign gifts of US$250,000 or more within a calendar year to file a disclosure report to the government. 

Other draft foreign influence bills, including the Senate Bill S.1169 in the US, are currently attempting to tighten those rules, including reducing the amount that has to be declared by institutions and individuals if the funding comes from certain countries such as China, after a number of universities failed to report substantial foreign gifts under Section 117

An amendment to the UK Higher Education Bill tabled on 12 January in the House of Commons would require disclosures of foreign funds of £50,000 (US$68,000) going back 10 years. 

“The question is, if the Dutch government or other governments in Europe issued new regulations where universities were forced to make these contracts public, whether it would change things, and I think it would,” said Fulda. 

Leiden Asia Centre’s d’Hooghe said: “There is no regulation that forces people to register somewhere what kind of collaboration they have. With new regulations in Australia and, to a certain extent, in the US and Canada, you have to become public with that kind of information. Not so in the Netherlands.”

“It’s not necessarily that people want to keep it a secret, it’s just not something that is done routinely. So at top levels in the university, but often even at the faculty level, the departments don’t have a good overview of exactly what kind of research is being done with whom, and how this is financed,” she said

The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) published a “Framework for Knowledge Security” in July 2021 that outlined risks and the need for monitoring research collaboration, as well as recommending that universities set up their own internal ‘knowledge security advisory team’ to include experts such as cybersecurity specialists.

The focus is on building risk awareness but does not go as far as requiring disclosure of foreign funding. Some universities have pointed out that they cannot ‘police’ research or researchers on behalf of the government. 

Who will investigate?

The Netherlands Inspectorate of Education has not indicated that it will carry out a broader investigation into China influence at universities in the country, saying in a statement following the VU Amsterdam row: “No other signals about Chinese influence are known to the inspectorate.”

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that the Inspectorate of Education “would be wise to do more homework in this area”.

“In a decade of documenting Chinese government threats to academic freedom around the world, Human Rights Watch has found threats at universities from Australia to the United States, and proposed a code of conduct to help mitigate these risks. 

“One key step: universities should publicly disclose all direct and indirect Chinese government funding and a list of projects and exchanges with Chinese government counterparts on an annual basis,” she said.

“In showing its permeability to Chinese government influence, the Free University shouldn’t limit its response simply to returning the funding. It should urgently assess whether students and scholars of and from China on its campus are subjected to harassment or surveillance,” which she noted had been well documented elsewhere, notably in Australia, Canada, the UK and the US. 

“University leadership and scholars should assess whether censorship and self-censorship have eroded the curriculum or classroom debate,” Richardson added. 

“The Free University should also join forces with counterparts across Europe – from Berlin to Cambridge to Budapest – who have faced similar problems, and agree to share information and adopt common standards with the goal of collectively resisting Beijing’s efforts to curtail academic freedom. The list of potential participants – supposedly ‘free’ universities – is disturbingly long.”

EU toolkit for universities: will it make a difference?

The EU issued a toolkit for universities on 18 January. Although it is comprehensive, d’Hooghe noted that “these rules are not binding because the EU has no competence in the area of education”. Universities are outside Brussels’ remit.

She saw it more as a “service to EU member states who still don’t have national rules, who find it very difficult to develop them or don’t have the capacity to develop them”.

While many ongoing collaboration projects with Chinese universities continue, despite academics and researchers being unable to travel due to pandemic restrictions, d’Hooghe said she knew of many who “are staying away” from starting new projects with China, in part due to risks, including reputational risks. 

But she noted that legislation on a national level regarding foreign influence could be tricky. “University autonomy is regarded as an important value and very important for science to advance, so universities are very reluctant to be limited by binding regulations.”