Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China. PHOTO: Derzsi Elekes Andor. CC BY-SA 3.0
By Matt Korda
By now everyone has had their say on the Chinese foreign minister’s eruption at a Canadian iPolitics reporter in May, when Minister Wang Yi accused Amanda Connolly of “prejudice against China” after she inquired about China’s shoddy human rights record.
With the noticeable exception of the Chinese ambassador to Canada, who subsequently remarked that “finger-pointing is not a proper way to treat guests,” the Canadian public consensus indicates that it was a shameful display on both sides—Minister Wang had no business scolding Ms. Connolly for her perfectly legitimate question, and Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Stéphane Dion should have stood up for her right to ask it, instead of standing by and remaining silent.
The incident may have resonated so widely because Canadians are relatively unaccustomed to such brazen contempt for a free press, but in fact Mr. Wang’s intimidation tactic is not a new or isolated incident. In fact, it is merely one among many instances of Chinese government influence being used to silence Canadian media sources critical of Beijing.
Xin Feng, a Toronto-based journalist, received two death threats after he criticized Minister Wang’s conduct in an article for 51.ca, one of the most popular Chinese-language publications in Canada. “Be careful that your whole family doesn’t get killed, be careful when you walk outside!” someone posted underneath the article. “Butcher this pig. He’s an animal, not a human,” read another comment. Mr. Xin has since refused to show his face in public, fearful for his family’s safety.
Gao Bingchen, a contributor to the Burnaby-based Global Chinese Press for more than a decade, had his column abruptly cancelled after he made similar comments about Minister Wang’s outburst on social media. He was subsequently informed by his editor that “[s]ome people don’t want to see your name in the newspaper.”
In the same vein, Helen Wang, editor of the Chinese Canadian Post, was fired in July 2015 for publishing an article criticizing Ontario cabinet minister Michael Chan. Mr. Chan had previously been named by The Globe and Mail as one of two provincial ministers under suspicion from CSIS as being under the influence of the Chinese government. The Globe also reported that one of Mr. Chan's aides has worked as a coordinator for pro-Beijing protests and another has previous experience scrubbing anti-Beijing rhetoric from news sources and now works as a press secretary for Premier Kathleen Wynne's office.
How has Beijing managed to influence Canadian media so effectively? Influential economist and activist He Qinglian believes that this phenomenon dates back to the 1990s when the Chinese communist government, newly enriched as a result of its open-door economic policy, began to funnel money into foreign Chinese-language media sources. This practice has since provided Beijing with the ability to micromanage foreign content and silence critical thought.
Helen Wang’s Chinese Canadian Post is a perfect example of the dubious ties between Beijing and supposedly “independent” Canadian media sources. Thomas Saras, president of the National Ethnic Press and Media Council of Canada, noted in an interview last year that the Canadian Chinese Post used to be called The Red Army Post, and most of the pages were actually printed in China before being shipped to Canada. “It was Chinese propaganda,” he concluded. In addition, Jesse Brown of Canadaland reports that the Canadian Chinese Post shares an office and a proprietary relationship with the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations (CTCCO), which CSIS has labelled an “agent of influence” for the Chinese communist government. Although the CTCCO chair and Canadian Chinese Post representatives insist that these entities are independent and receive no funding from Beijing, the obvious conflict of interest is impossible to ignore.
But these close ties between Canadian Chinese-language media and Beijing are not simply explained through these suspicious proprietary relationships. Award-winning journalist Sheng Xue, chair of the Federation for a Democratic China, believes that there is something much deeper at play.
Ms. Sheng argues that the close family and business ties maintained between many first-generation Chinese Canadian immigrants and the mainland can foster a harmful psychological affiliation to Beijing. “Sometimes when you talk to Chinese immigrants, they don’t even know what [are] the universal values of Canada—this is very sad,” Ms. Sheng says. “A lot of people, even though they have lived in Canada for many years, still have the same communist mentality. This is not good for Canada, it is not good for those people, and it is not good for the Chinese community.” Xin Feng, the journalist who received the two death threats, told The Globe and Mail that “[s]ome readers are angry because they think the Chinese minister is still their minister.”
Paralegal Jonathan Fon, who wrote the article critiquing Minister Chan for which editor Helen Wang was dismissed, equates it to a form of Stockholm Syndrome. “They still think they are Chinese subjects, not Canadian citizens,” he remarked during his Canadaland interview with Jesse Brown. “If you live in a Chinese community, you smell and feel and hear his image, his voice.” When Jesse inquires as to whom he is referring, Mr. Fon, who is also a friend of Mr. Xin, ominously responds: “The Chinese regime.”
This is not simply a Canadian issue. Since the beginning of Xi Jinping’s presidency in November 2012, Freedom House has documented over 40 isolated examples of negative Chinese government influence in 17 countries and international institutions. And the common thread tying all of these isolated incidents together is Beijing’s apparent disrespect for the autonomy of foreign media.
This is not an issue of loyalty, and we must take care not to follow such a dangerous line of thinking. Our country has historically committed shameful and painful acts to its own citizens under the pretense of questioning their patriotism. And as Mr. Chan rightly states, “maintaining deep, meaningful connections with one’s culture, with one’s country of origin, is something millions of Canadians cherish.”
This is, however, about a free and independent Canadian press, immune from foreign or domestic subversion. The Chinese government must be prevented from censoring Canadian content, and journalists like Xin Feng, Gao Bingchen and Amanda Connolly must be allowed to ask tough questions without fear of retribution.
This is also about having a government that stands up for its journalists. Minister Dion’s idle performance at the June 1 press conference displayed an attitude that unnecessarily prioritized appeasement over confrontation. It was his responsibility, and would have been completely within his diplomatic remit, to politely explain to Minister Wang that while Canada respects its strong bilateral partnership with China, our country’s free press encourages thorough questioning from the media. This statement would have been especially justified under the present diplomatic circumstances, given that Canadian aid worker Kevin Garratt was recently charged by the Chinese government with espionage—an accusation which Yves Tiberghien, director of the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Asian Research, calls “improbable.”
If there is any consolation to be drawn, it is that these issues could be resolved with time. Jonathan Fon believes that second-generation Chinese Canadians will not experience this form of 'Stockholm Syndrome'. “They think that their identity belongs to Canada.” In the meantime, it is essential that the Liberal government stands up for the autonomy of Canadian media, and does more to push back against this pernicious form of foreign subversion during talks with their Chinese counterparts.
Matt Korda is a postgraduate student in the Department of War Studies at King's College London, focusing mainly on geopolitics and human rights in Russia, the Caucasus and the Arctic. He has previously been published by the NATO Association of Canada and The Toronto Globalist, and is a co-author of the book "Georgia's European Dream: Perspectives on a Nation in Transition." Matt greatly values reader feedback and can be reached at [email protected].