Book Excerpt: China Unbound
Excerpted from China Unbound: A New World Disorder by Joanna Chiu ©2021 Joanna Chiu. Published by House of Anansi Press www.houseofanansi.com
While United Front activities are perhaps most obvious in a country like Canada, with its large ethnic Chinese population, this is happening in a number of countries. Canada is an example of what is going on internationally in China’s treatment of middle powers. It is also a case study of what happens when a government fails to protect its citizens.
If Canadian leaders had paid heed to testimonies about Beijing’s harassment and meddling in Chinese diaspora communities decades ago, vulnerable people might now feel safer to express their views in Canada, advocates say.
Veteran publisher, activist, and documentary filmmaker Cheuk Kwan is now in his early sixties. I met him at a Cantonese seafood restaurant overlooking Toronto’s harbourfront. Kwan walked in looking like an artist, in a practically all-black ensemble with his greying hair partly shrouding his eyes. He gave me a firm handshake and politely asked if my colleagues at the Toronto Star were doing well.
Unlike the elders in Beijing who deflected my questioning, Kwan was eager to talk about the past. In 1980, he co-founded the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC), an organization with a mandate to monitor racial discrimination and educate youth about the contributions of Chinese Canadians. In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, the group took a stand and called on Ottawa to accept more refugees and help political dissidents.
What happened next left him utterly bewildered.
“That pissed off the Chinese consulate, so they started their own group to counter our work, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians [NCCC],” Kwan said. In my notebook, he wrote out, side by side, the Chinese names of the two organizations — his and the one the embassy started — and pointed out the similarities in both languages.
The rival group organized yearly celebrations of the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. To Kwan’s consternation, many Canadian politicians accepted invitations to join in such celebrations, which granted them legitimacy.
The NCCC became bolder, issuing statements that were the opposite of statements from Kwan’s group. For example, when the CCNC asked Canadian leaders to officially apologize for Canada the racist “head tax” Canada placed on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923 and provide significant financial compensation to affected families, the NCCC issued statements saying no compensation would be necessary, actually.
The new group’s activities successfully confused the public and watered down his group’s advocacy work, Kwan said. Canadian journalists interviewed representatives from the NCCC by mistake when they meant to reach out to the CCNC.
Kwan clarified that he had no proof that the Chinese embassy directly founded the NCCC, but plenty of photographs show embassy officials attending the group’s events as guests of honour. Today, “astroturfing” — the practice of masking an organization’s sponsors to make it appear like a grassroots group— is a popular stratagem of the United Front. The tactic emerged in the 1980s in cities with large Chinese immigrant populations.
As the years passed, Kwan said, more pro-Beijing groups sprang up in the guise of benign-sounding Chinese cultural associations. He thought it was obvious that these were “shell” groups, purporting to be non-partisan and non-political while aggressively spreading pro-Beijing propaganda. But it was not as clear in their English-language materials.
Kwan said the tactics proved very successful in sowing confusion. But some activists reacted by speaking more loudly.
In 2006, Kwan testified before a Canadian parliamentary subcommittee, imploring Ottawa to help build an international coalition among liberal democracies to push for meaningful action on China’s human rights abuses. Even in the transcript of his remarks, his passion shines through: “Canada needs to adopt a consistent and principled stance when dealing with China. Only then will we earn their respect and not wrath. Canada need not fear any adverse outcomes for trade relations. There is no substance to the claim that a decline in trade will result.”
More than fifteen years later, Canada still doesn’t have a comprehensive counter-interference strategy. Its efforts to guard against foreign bribery and money laundering are also “shockingly low,” especially when compared to similar-sized countries like the United Kingdom and France, according to a 2020 review from Transparency International Canada.
“We tried to warn about Beijing’s activities in Canada for decades,” Kwan said with a sigh.