Beijing’s Response to Spat with Canada Is Driven by Domestic Politics

The dispute over the arrest of a Huawei executive challenges both the nationalism and the economic stewardship that underpins the Communist Party’s legitimacy at home.

Expert comment Published 1 February 2019 Updated 18 June 2019 2 minute READ
Students holding Chinese national flags watch the live broadcast of the 40th anniversary celebration of China's reform and opening-up at Huaibei Normal University on 18 December. Photo: Getty Images.

Students holding Chinese national flags watch the live broadcast of the 40th anniversary celebration of China’s reform and opening-up at Huaibei Normal University on 18 December. Photo: Getty Images.

Since Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou’s arrest last month, relations between China and Canada have been strained by what many have interpreted as Beijing’s retaliatory detentions of two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – on national security charges. The actions have already sparked a global debate over the so-called ‘hostage diplomacy’ between the two countries.

But the present breakdown in ties between Beijing and Ottawa is neither morality play nor conspiracy. Instead, it is a function of the Chinese government’s need to answer to its furious domestic audience, with Canada caught in the unfortunate timing of the US–China trade war.

From Beijing’s perspective, Canada’s action has fundamentally challenged twin elements of the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy: a resurgent Chinese nationalism and the governing capacity of the party. It is no wonder that this has sparked rage in Beijing.

On the nationalism plank, the party has strongly promoted the idea that its leadership has ended over 150 years of foreign bullying of China and helped the country regain its rightful place at the centre of world affairs. This narrative requires the party to ensure that such bullying cannot recur.

Seen in this light, the party must show that it can stand up and care for its own citizens. Firm retaliation to the ‘bullying’ of Huawei is something that many Chinese people would expect from their rulers. And Chinese state media has reinforced this perception, accusing Ottawa of double standards and hypocrisy.

Some parts of the world do not understand the sense of humiliation today’s Chinese feel when they look back on the past, at least in the version that is popularly presented domestically. A dangerous mixture of China’s historical humiliation and its staggering economic success has bred a strong sense of resentment on one level and an equally powerful current of complacency on another. Canada, even unintentionally, is not the first country to be caught in this nor will it be the last one.

On governing capacity, the Chinese leadership aims to achieve China’s eventual economic transformation from a hub of low-cost manufacturing to a great innovative economic power. This remains the top priority of President Xi Jinping and his comrades. Beijing is cultivating national champions that can lead China’s dominance in technological innovation, with the aim of eventually replacing foreign technology with domestic suppliers. And Huawei is the poster child of this so-called ‘indigenous innovation’.

However, such growing prowess has stoked fears across advanced economies in North America and Europe. Huawei’s 5G mobile network is designed to support a vast expansion of speed and capability to facilitate medical devices, self-driving cars and other technology.

That increases the risk of potential security failures and has alarmed governments concerned about telecoms communications networks as strategic assets. Many Western security services are convinced that the Chinese state dominates the economy in part to be able to use companies like Huawei to advance its own ends. In this reading, if Beijing were to wage political espionage, Huawei is likely to be a convenient vessel.

One must admit that politics is separated from Canada’s judicial system; its independence and impartiality are internationally respected. Canada is merely following due process which treats every extradition request in the same way. But Meng’s arrest, amid the trade war between Beijing and Washington, was bound to be viewed in a political light.

There is nothing inevitable about Canada and China returning to enmity. From high politics to the high street inside China, Canada is viewed as a friendly country, and many Chinese people fondly recall famous Canadians like Dr Norman Bethune, who was praised with an eulogy by Mao on his relentless efforts to save thousands of Chinese soldiers’ lives during the Second World War, and Mark Rowswell (commonly known as Da Shan), whose stand-up comedy routines in Chinese have been a staple of Chinese New Year programming for more than a decade.

It is vital that this episode does not permanently damage one of China’s warmest bilateral relationships with a G7 member, both between leaders and peoples. While there is a clear historical context to understanding popular Chinese grievances, Beijing must also refrain from exploiting such fears and concentrating too closely on Canada, while failing to more explicitly call out the role of the US in this affair.

Finally, China must respect the independence of Canada’s judiciary. After all, one reason millions of Chinese and other people have made and aspire to make Canada their permanent home is the rule of law. Canada is considered a sanctuary which offers defence against lack of due process; the Chinese government must accept that this rule of law applies equally when their compatriots are involved.