House of Commons Special Committee on the Canada - People's Republic of China Relationship
feat. Colin Robertson
November 15, 2022
I made my first visit to Taiwan in the spring of 1988, six months after being posted as Consul to the British Crown colony of Hong Kong. Hong Kong was China’s entrepot to the world and our best entrée into the rest of Asia. It was also home to an expatriate population of Canadians that after the Tiananmen Square massacre, when Hong Kongers flocked to Canada, is now the largest in Asia.
I was also accredited to China. Every four months I would travel north by rail to Guangzhou to attend to our consular cases while reporting on the economic developments in China. I watched the transformation of Shenzhen from bucolic rice paddies and water buffalos to a booming frontier town of bamboo scaffolding and raucous growth. Today Shenzhen is China’s Silicon Valley, home to its tech champion, Huawei.
I had already visited Beijing, cloaked in coal smoke, with its hutongs and bicycles. My visit to Taipei, with its bicycles, coal smoke and hutongs, reminded me very much of Beijing. The people were ethnically the same – Han Chinese – but they had backed the wrong side in the civil war. The Republic of China’s Kuomintang party and the People’s Republic of China’s Chinese Communist Party ruled in much the same autocratic fashion.
For the West, the iconic Asian leader of the time was Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew. Lee argued that the 'Asian Way’, or at least the Chinese way, was a benevolent but autocratic government that accorded no priority to human rights. It seemed a fair assessment even though it did not align with the UN Charter and the commitment by all member nations to human rights.
Fast forward to 2019 when I returned to Taiwan. Months earlier, I had visited Shanghai and Beijing – now modern and bustling cities. Taipei had kept pace.
But there was one fundamental difference.
As we drove into the city we passed Taipei’s ‘White House’, the home of President Madame Tsai Ing-wen There was a demonstration. What was it about I asked? It was in support of freedom of the press. An oligarch with ties to China wanted to buy a local newspaper, something the public opposed. For them it was part of the long-running PRC disinformation and cyber campaign designed to disrupt Taiwanese democracy.
Taiwan has become a vibrant and lively democracy with peaceful transitions between parties, a free press, independent judiciary, a competent and arguably, the most uncorrupt civil service in Asia. In its annual assessment of political rights and civil liberties, Freedom House scores Taiwan with 94 out of a hundred. (Canada scores 98, the U.S. gets 83. China is ranked at 9).
I had dinner with their Digital Affairs Minister, Audrey Tang. Tang is transgender. Taiwan was one of the first Asian nations to recognize LGBTQ rights.
Applied technology, notably semiconductors – Tang began, is the means by which Taiwan leapt into the ranks of developed nations. Yes, she told me, China is relentless in its campaign to destabilize and intimidate the Taiwanese through disinformation, cyberwarfare and intrusions into its airspace. But the Taiwanese people will defend their democracy. They rely on the U.S. and wish we in the West were less cowed by China
I’ll conclude with an observation and three recommendations:
My observation: Taiwan belies the CCP belief that Chinese and Asian people prefer and do best under autocracy. In that sense, Taiwan undermines the foundational belief and thus the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. For Xi Jinping, Taiwan is the heretic state. Xi is determined to reunify Taiwan with the mainland, by force if necessary. Vladimir Putin feels the same about Ukraine.
As to recommendations:
First, now that the CCP has snuffed out the liberties guaranteed by UN sanctioned agreements to grow representative government in Hong Kong, Taiwan is the best place in the Indo-Pacific to monitor the mainland. Taiwan’s think tanks and intelligence about China are without peer. With China a hotbed for pandemics but inclined to cover-up, Taiwan’s proximity gives us early warning.
Second, we should do more to support Taiwan through trade and investment and people-to-people ties. Let’s market Canadian schools and universities and promote Canada as a destination for tourism and immigration. This committee should officially visit Taiwan. We need to resume ministerial visits based on shared interests like trade, innovation, health, and regional security. The last minister to visit was then Industry Minister John Manley in 1998. We should also support Taiwan’s legitimate aspirations to join institutions like the CPTPP, WHO and the Montreal-based ICAO.
Third, China is actively challenging our rules-based order and, as we know, covertly attempting to disrupt democratic governments. I applaud this committee’s discussion of Chinese disinformation and cyber-intrusions including intellectual property theft and attacks on critical infrastructure. But what about allegations of money-laundering, secret police, co-opting officials, and campaign funding for parliamentary candidates?
We must stay engaged with the PRC for reasons of geo-politics – climate change, pandemics, and nuclear nonproliferation – as well as trade and our people-to-people ties. But we must re-examine our policy on Chinese state-owned enterprises. And we need to add teeth – sanctions – to the Declaration on Arbitrary Detention to deter further Chinese hostage-taking.