The current diplomatic crisis seems to have reshaped Canadians’ perceptions of China. For many years, public opinion polls had revealed ambivalent – neither strongly positive nor strongly negative – attitudes. Survey questions about human rights had generally elicited negative views of China, but questions about trade had often prompted positive responses, revealing no clear overall stance towards China. In spring of 2018, a matter of months before the dispute erupted, a survey by the Pew Research Center reported that 44 per cent of Canadians held favourable views of China, against 45 per cent holding unfavourable views – a roughly even split. However, when the same survey was repeated in early 2019, shortly after China had detained Kovrig and Spavor, it showed that 67 per cent of Canadians expressed an unfavourable opinion of China, or more than double the 27 per cent declaring a favourable view (Figure 1). Other surveys have revealed a similar sea change in public views since late 2018.
Strongly negative views of China are likely to endure for several reasons. First, Kovrig and Spavor’s detention is a source of ongoing consternation in Canada, and the Chinese government is unlikely to consider releasing them until Meng’s extradition case is resolved. Her extradition proceedings may continue for several months, or even longer. Moreover, if they culminate in her extradition to the US – the usual outcome of such cases – Chinese authorities may retaliate further, which would almost certainly deepen bilateral tensions and reinforce Canadians’ negative perceptions of China.
Figure 1: Canadian public views of China
Second, Canadians showed signs of souring on China even before the current crisis. Studies conducted by the Angus Reid Institute found that public support for developing closer trade ties with China fell steadily from 40 per cent of respondents in early 2015 to 24 per cent in 2017, a year before the crisis – a trend that has since accelerated (Figure 2). Indeed, the diplomatic crisis occurred at a stage when Canadians were expressing growing apprehension about other aspects of the Chinese government’s behaviour, including alleged cyberattacks and espionage, and China’s expanding military capabilities. Beijing’s actions in the wake of Meng’s arrest appear to have crystallized these concerns – and there is no reason to expect them to disappear.
Third, the COVID-19 pandemic has focused attention not only on China’s apparent suppression of information concerning the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan, but also on its harsh response to calls for an international investigation into the origins of the pandemic. In a recent Research Co. poll, two-thirds of Canadian respondents agreed with the statement that the Chinese government ‘should take responsibility for its role in the COVID-19 outbreak’, with more than one-third ‘strongly’ supporting this assertion.
Figure 2: Support for closer trade ties with China
Figure 3: Which elements of the relationship with China should be the highest priority for the Canadian government?
Still, public distrust of China should not be confused with hostility, or with a desire to escalate the current bilateral dispute. Canadians continue to favour a diplomatic solution. One poll conducted in early June 2019, for example, just six months after Kovrig and Spavor’s detention, showed overwhelming support for decreasing tensions through diplomatic talks (65 per cent) rather than by Canada boycotting Chinese goods (15 per cent). Another survey found that nearly two-thirds of Canadians wanted their government to ‘work diligently and behind the scenes’ to resolve the dispute. In addition, Canadians continue to support cooperation with China in less contentious areas, with respondents in the third national survey on Canada–China relations conducted by the University of British Columbia identifying bilateral trade and investment as the highest priority for the Canadian government (Figure 3).