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Vote No. 23 is the first shot in Erin O’Toole’s war on China

Canadian PoliticsAsia

Illustration by Canadian Dimension

On November 18, Conservative MP Michael Chong introduced the following motion in parliament:

That, given that (i) the People’s Republic of China, under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, is threatening Canada’s national interest and its values, including Canadians of Chinese origin within Canada’s borders, (ii) it is essential that Canada have a strong and principled foreign policy backed by action in concert with its allies, the House call upon the government to: (a) make a decision on Huawei’s involvement in Canada’s 5G network within 30 days of the adoption of this motion; and (b) develop a robust plan, as Australia has done, to combat China’s growing foreign operations here in Canada and its increasing intimidation of Canadians living in Canada, and table it within 30 days of the adoption of this motion.


The following day, Vote No. 23 proceeded. The result: 146 opposed, 178 for. The bill passed. The Liberals opposed this Conservative proposal but, surprisingly, the NDP, the Greens and the Bloc swung in to support the bill, delivering a defeat to the Liberals. As a non-binding motion, it did not bring down the Liberal minority government.

Following the vote The Globe and Mail boasted: “The motion came one week after the The Globe and Mail reported that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service warned that Chinese state-sponsored harassment in Canada is part of a global campaign of intimidation that constitutes a threat to this country’s sovereignty and the safety of Canadians.”

Vote No. 23 specifically targets one country, China, as a threat to Canadian “values” and to Chinese Canadians and demands that the Liberal government table within 30 days “a robust plan, as Australia has done, to combat China’s growing foreign operations.”

In the midst of the pandemic, this motion and the agenda behind it have not penetrated most people’s bubbles. We ignore it, however, at our peril. Vote No. 23 represents the thin edge of a wedge that would cleave the world in two and potentially lead to unmitigated disaster.

Wrapped in a humanitarian cause (protecting Chinese Canadians), beseeching Canadians to defend their values, and demanding action now, the motion was cleverly crafted, so much so in fact that it brought most MPs belonging to the NDP, the Greens, and the Bloc to the Conservative side.

How did this happen?

Erin O’Toole and Asian history

“Why does Erin O’Toole talk about China so much?”

That was the title of an article published last month by the Toronto Star’s Alex Boutilier. It offers a clue to the origins of Vote No. 23 and points to two commentaries written by O’Toole in the National Post, one in April during the Conservative leadership race, and one in September after he became leader.

These articles illustrate O’Toole’s agenda to divide the world into two warring camps, to redefine Canada as a moral leader in a ‘new Cold War,’ and to build a nationalist consensus in support of this war predicated on Canadian humanitarian values.

O’Toole’s first article, penned just as COVID-19 was spreading, attacked China for its initial handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, asserting, “We are on the brink of a new Cold War.” China is the ostensible enemy in that war, as the Soviet Union supposedly was in the past, asserts O’Toole.

“China’s ability to endure the Second Cold War,” he states, “is entirely dependent on its ability to maintain its control over what the Soviets called their ‘near abroad’.” According to him, “China’s ‘near abroad’ includes the “very near Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau,” as well as a peripheral ‘near abroad’ of Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam.

Conservative Party leader Erin O’Toole is a hawkish voice on China. Image from Twitter.

O’Toole’s solution? He points to sanctions as one means that was used to “hollow out the Soviet economy,” but his main thrust is directed towards making China “untrustworthy.” The means: “Encouraging academic and journalistic dissent in Hong Kong and Taiwan and supporting their engagement with free nations are key strategic imperatives for the West in a Cold War with China.”

O’Toole’s grasp of the history of East Asia deserves a failing grade—his mistaken assertion, for example, that China controls Japan or South Korea is totally off-base. One of Canada’s pre-eminent authorities on East Asia, Waterloo professor Kimie Hara, has written extensively showing that the controlling force in the region is, in fact, the United States through its ongoing military presence and its alliances with Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, the Philippines, and South Korea. Often referred to as the San Francisco System (where many of the military alliances were brokered in 1951), this projection of American power, she said in a recent exchange, “has been in place for seven decades and continues to this day.”

O’Toole’s call for a new Cold War is in fact a call to re-mobilize the existing military networks in various ways in an effort to overturn the Chinese regime.

As an historian of Asia, I once wrote an article titled “Rethinking Post-War East Asia: The Cold War that Never Was and Still Is,” in which I concluded the term ‘Cold War’ was misleading in two ways. First, its use to denote US-Soviet rivalry masks the fact that what was really at stake was the control of decolonization then taking place in India, Africa, Latin America, China and elsewhere. Odd Arne Westad, another leading authority on this history, concluded that the Cold War was in fact the “continuation of colonialism through slightly different means.”

That also holds for today. What worries the likes of O’Toole, Trump and others is that China’s emergence as an economic power threatens US dominance of global capitalism.

The second problem with the term ‘Cold War’ was that in Asia it was never cold—it was very hot and led to the deaths of millions of people. To apply the term ‘Cold War’ casually, as O’Toole does, is demeaning to the memories of those who perished, on both sides of the conflicts.

Such usage also masks the historical consensus that the United States, in its quest for control over the region, committed extensive war crimes including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; indiscriminate bombing and intervention in Vietnam that left millions dead or permanently maimed; and the carpet bombing of North Korea that that “killed and maimed by the thousands and left cities, towns, villages and countryside in scorched and shattered ruins.”

For Mr. O’Toole to casually refer to, and call for another Cold War is, frankly, beyond the pale.

Yet, here we are.

O’Toole’s war: The sequel

O’Toole’s initial article echoed the views of Donald Trump and his former national security advisor John Bolton, but it did not get much play in the spring. It was overshadowed by comments by his Conservative leadership rival, Derek Sloan, who accused Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, of working for China, not Canada. Roundly condemned for racism, Sloan placed last in the Conservative leadership race that O’Toole won in late August.

The lessons of the Sloan affair were not lost on O’Toole. Within a week after taking over as Conservative leader, he mounted a refurbished anti-China warhorse and wrote his second National Post commentary titled, “As prime minister, I will stand up to China.”

This time, O’Toole crafted his message more carefully. “The millions of Canadians with Chinese ancestry are not connected to our diplomatic differences with Beijing,” he wrote. “We cannot allow our diplomatic relationship with China to lead to any discrimination against Canadians.”

Erin O’Toole has vowed to “stand up to China” if elected prime minister. Image from Twitter.

His campaign, he suggested, had nothing to do with the “country of China, or its people” and everything to do with protecting human rights in China. O’Toole even went on to attack corporate lobbyists representing trade with China, calling for the protection of Canadian workers. This is the friendlier, progressive face of the warhorse O’Toole has mounted.

At least one MP, the NDP’s Niki Ashton, has seen through this humanitarian veneer and challenged the O’Toole campaign by sponsoring parliamentary petition e-2857 calling for the release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. Further protests are planned as part of a pan-Canadian campaign to free Meng gets underway, but it faces an uphill battle.

Humanitarian imperialism

Being concerned about the fate of Hong Kong, or the fate of the Uyghur or Tibetan minorities is completely understandable—we should all be concerned, just as I hope people in China are concerned about what is happening to Indigenous peoples here in Canada.

But beware the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

Last week, the federal Green Party’s Paul Manly took part in a Zoom panel discussion related to a recently launched campaign to free Meng. Manly has a solid track record and is well respected. During the panel, he defended his decision to line up with the Conservatives on Vote No. 23, invoking Edward Snowden and Noam Chomsky in defense of that decision. Both have raised concerns about the capacity of state surveillance in China. And rightfully so.

When informed about the contents of the motion, however, Chomsky disputed the idea that his concerns about Chinese surveillance justified what Vote No. 23 represents. It seems like a bad business, he said in an e-mail exchange. In the US, he continued, some leaders also were ready to “outdo Trump on the Yellow Peril.” He relayed a clear message: “The only sane policy is to be cooperating with China on matters of common interest, which not only abound but are crucial for our survival.”

More than 15 years ago, Jean Bricmont articulated the notion of “humanitarian imperialism” in which human rights could be used to sell war. Many people are pursuing and supporting the fight for justice at home and abroad but we should keep in mind the precautionary principle “do no harm.” We should also avoid getting carried away, allowing our fight for justice to come at the expense of others or provoke a global conflict that would benefit only weapons producers.

We all could do worse than to take a page from one of world’s leading medical journals, The Lancet (founded in 1823), which only a few days ago partnered with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to sponsor a two-day online conference regarding the global fight against COVID-19.

Canada: A values giant?

As Vote No. 23 demonstrates, O’Toole is still on the warpath against China, but his approach is more nuanced than in the spring. The Conservative leader now suggests Canada has a special role within a “Western” alliance. “We are a giant,” he states, “when it comes to our commitment to our values and our allies.”

Previous proponents of Canadian “values” were Kelly Leitch, running against Andrew Scheer for leadership of the Conservative Party in 2016, who called for “values-screening” in immigration and the creation of a “barbaric cultural practices” tip line. For his part, Maxime Bernier, as leader of the upstart People’s Party, also invoked Canadian values during his 2019 federal campaign. Both lost badly in their respective contests.

O’Toole has learned from the experience of Leitch and Bernier. His approach to Canadian values is much more sophisticated. This includes opposing discrimination against Chinese Canadians, protecting Canadian workers from unfair Chinese competition, and defending the human rights of minority groups in China.

He also uses the term “Canadian values” in a general sense, appealing to common beliefs that Canadians are different than Americans. “We are polite and want to do good,” and O’Toole skillfully weaves that idea into his new pitch.

But it doesn’t resonate. It sounds more like O’Toole is playing on what legal historian Constance Backhouse identified as the “ideology of racelessness, a hallmark of the Canadian historical tradition, is very much in keeping with our national mythology that Canada is not a racist country, or at least much less so than our southern neighbour, the United States.”

Nowhere in O’Toole’s narrative is there space for the Wet’suwet’en fight for land back in northern BC, or the Black Lives Matter movement that arose across Canada as well as in the US, just when O’Toole’s was penning his second article.

To suggest that Canada is a “moral giant” erases much of Canada’s past and present—the deeply embedded systemic racism, misogyny, anti-labour, and homophobic history that continues to plague this country.

In that sense, O’Toole’s touting of Canada as a “values giant” appeals mainly to those who would prefer to forget Canada’s history and locate themselves as superior, particularly in relation to the evil other—in this case China.

In the end, O’Toole’s new policies feed off of the racist presumptions and cultural misrepresentations of Western superiority in relation to other civilizations, well-described by Edward Said in his foundational work, Orientalism.

Bringing in race

By backing the Conservative Vote No. 23, the NDP and Greens have given O’Toole and the Conservatives a foot in the door.

The fact he has brought a number of Chinese Canadians such as Michael Chong into his tent does not cancel out the essentially racist campaign he is mounting.

Some Chinese Canadians are so upset by what has happened in Hong Kong they are willing to ally with anyone in their hatred of Beijing.

But when such voices of dissent line up with Trump, or with O’Toole’s agenda for war with China, they go too far.

Nor do they express the diversity of opinions that exist among Chinese Canadians. Hundreds of Chinese Canadians have expressed their displeasure with Trudeau regarding his government’s detention of Meng and the deplorable state of relations with China. But because of the anti-China tide currently sweeping Canada, they do not want to make their views public out of fear they will be labelled ‘agents of China.’

This has happened on more than one occasion in the past. It was not so long ago that former CSIS director, Richard Fadden, was labelling certain Chinese Canadian politicians as agents of the CCP.

O’Toole’s agenda includes continuing his attacks on the World Health Organization as an instrument of the Chinese government, a claim that adds to Sinophobia and further fuels anti-Asian racism associated with the coronavirus.

In the Unites States, many Chinese Americans have stepped forward to denounce the anti-China campaign waged by Trump and currently being parroted by O’Toole. And they worry that Biden will not back off. One organization that is standing up to the anti-China hysteria is Pivot 2 Peace, a broad-based association of Asian Americans working to stop the demonization of China that could lead to war.

In concert with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (San Francisco) and Chinese for Affirmative Action, P2P recently sponsored an online webinar “Chinese Americans United Against the New Cold War.”

Julie Tang is a co-founder of Pivot 2 Peace. A retired judge of the San Francisco Superior Court and co-founder of the Domestic Violence Court in that city, she recently recounted, “Chinese-Americans are victims of this revived Cold War. Just look at the statistics. STOP AAPI HATE, an anti-racism website set up in March 2020 has received over 2,700 reports of hate incidents against Asian-Americans.”

“Chinese-American scholars and scientists are being persecuted,” wrote Tang, “as a part of the FBI’s overall strategy to purge America of a Chinese ‘whole of society’ spying machine.” In a recent email exchange, she said they are even targeting major organizations such as the Committee of One Hundred founded by famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma and the late architect, I.M. Pei.

Tang said she and other Chinese Americans “live in a climate of fear.”

“Although some politicians talk about China as a threat to ‘National Security,’ I think the opposite is true,” she says. “What threatens our security is inflammatory rhetoric against China, ignorance, and a misdirection towards a real war with China.”

Those in the NDP, the Green Party, and the Bloc who backed Vote No. 23 might want to listen to such voices and reconsider how they might respond to the anti-China campaign being waged by O’Toole and the Conservative Party.

John Price is professor emeritus of transpacific history at the University of Victoria and author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific and A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung.

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