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China and Australia puzzles from flags, 3D rendering
China and Australia puzzles from flags, 3D rendering
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Weighing the Costs of China’s High-Tech Power

Western nations like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada must weigh Beijing’s demands carefully

Mid-last month, US lawmakers passed the Human Rights and Democracy Act and also a bill that approved stopping tear gas exports to Hong Kong. The measure was condemned by China but greeted with rejoicing in Hong Kong, which is not officially fully owned by China until 2045.

In one sense, the Hongkongers’ affection for the Stars and Stripes is a curious turn of events. The Hong Kong protesters’ anthem prominently displays the Union Jack and the English language words resonate with the echoes of popular democracy movements in western Europe. But the United States is one of the few countries with the national strength to simply set limits to China’s high tech-enforced totalitarian aspirations.

Recently, commentator Mark Steyn noted the cultural shift: “I must say, I find this a little bit embarrassing as a Canadian because if Britain was the serious guarantor of Hong Kong’s freedom that it is in law, they would be waving Union Jacks and they’re not.”

Meanwhile, the United States has raised the stakes by questioning World Bank loans to China on the grounds that “Beijing is too wealthy for international aid.”

The reality is, smaller Western countries, dependent on high-tech co-operation and the promise of huge markets in China, mute their protests over Hong Kong and even accept Chinese government censorship in their own territories. That can put them in conflict with their own stated values.

New Zealand: The high cost of helplessness

New Zealand, as Canadian intelligence reports have revealed, has reached a “critical stage,” “influenced at every level of society by the Chinese government”:

“New Zealand provides a vivid case study of China’s willingness to use economic ties to interfere with the political life of a partner country,” the report stated, warning that smaller states were “particularly vulnerable” to Chinese influence. New Zealand is home to just 4.7 million people.

“An aggressive strategy has sought to influence political decision-making, pursue unfair advantages in trade and business, suppress criticism of China, facilitate espionage opportunities, and influence overseas Chinese communities.”

Eleanor Ainge Roy, “Chinese interference in New Zealand at ‘critical’ stage, says Canada spy report” at The Guardian (June 1, 2018)

New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern (right), widely seen as a Southern Cone version of Canada’s Justin Trudeau, cited her friendship with Trudeau to deny knowledge of any problem. Other New Zealand sources express a different view. If China’s influence has indeed created no problems, New Zealand must be in an unusual position.

Canada has felt the heat, whether it is admitted or otherwise. In one minor example, Canada has not interfered with the sale of tee shirts that show Taiwan as an independent country. It was thus caught in the crossfire when a US retail giant was humbling itself before Beijing:

The company took action after photos began circulating on Chinese social media of a T-shirt showing a map that didn’t include Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing regards as Chinese territory. The map also appeared to leave out southern Tibet and the disputed South China Sea, the state-owned Global Times said, adding that it drew hundreds of complaints on China’s Weibo microblogging platform.

The photos were taken at a Gap shop in Canada’s Niagara region, Global Times said. The shirt could not be found on Gap websites and it wasn’t clear whether it was still being sold in shops in some countries…

China noted Gap’s apology and “will follow carefully their actions and remarks later on,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a daily briefing in Beijing.

Kelvin Chan, “U.S. retailer Gap apologizes after China complains about map on T-shirt” at The Star (May 15, 2018)

Australia: A retreat to legacy politics?

In Australia (population roughly 25 million), the situation is similar but more complex. Australia’s standard of living is tied to its exports to China. Its home-grown high-tech sector is limited and a chance for access to the huge Chinese market—the health care market for example—is an incentive for co-operation with China. One consequence of Oz’s delicate position, geographical and otherwise, is a certain defensiveness about that relationship, which has resulted in great difficulty assessing the costs, risks, and benefits in a straightforward way:

On Australia’s political left, particularly in the largely Chinese-funded universities, it’s commonplace to label anyone questioning Chinese influence as racist. According to the Lowy Institute, the younger population holds China in high regard, despite the country’s repressive politics and massive greenhouse emissions, due in part to widespread dislike for U.S. President Donald Trump. Australia’s China critics feel isolated, threatened, and outnumbered. “Even my freedom in Australia is increasingly under threat from China’s ‘soft power,’” said Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney, when noting that Australia’s civil society organizations, Chinese-backed newspapers, and its four Confucius Institutes largely follow the party line. Clive Hamilton, a professor of public ethics at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and author of the 2018 book Silent Invasion: China’s Influence in Australia, has described support for China’s regime among the Greens and Socialist Alternative party as “bizarre” and reflecting “a real paucity of analysis,” or “a kind of identity politics on steroids.”

Joel Kotkin, “Australia’s China Syndrome” at City Journal

While Australia certainly had racist immigration policies during the last century (the White Australia Policy), the use of that fact to derail discussion of the country’s current political and diplomatic position appears opportunist to many. The undiscussable issue is, what would it mean for Australia to carve out a different, more independent path?

Canada: Riding a tiger is easy; dismounting is trickier

The situation in Canada (population 37 million) is somewhat different again and also more complex. Canada does not need to deal directly with China to anything like the same degree as the Southern Cone countries (although it is locked in a messy trade dispute). But a number of political, as well as technological, considerations favor overlooking Beijing’s encroachments.

Canada has a ruling class of sorts, often called the “Laurentian elite” (after the Laurentian Shield landform that dominates the powerhouse provinces of Ontario and Quebec). The Liberal Party, currently in power, is Canada’s Natural Governing Party. Much of the nation’s politics in the last half century has revolved around keeping Quebec, and more recently Alberta, from pursuing separatism.

Faced with these problems, the Laurentian elite routinely falls back on anti-Americanism as a popular distraction. The strategy is adaptive: Canada poses no actual threat to the United States. Thus, the United States (by far Canada’s best customer) has traditionally ignored the resulting antics. The antics are, after all, aimed at the home crowd anyway. Here’s a recent verbal snapshot of the elite:

Today’s Laurentian Elite is arguably our local franchise of the mobile, international (or transnational) professional class – the “Anywheres” as discussed by Stephen Harper in his 2018 book, Right Here, Right Now. These are, according to Harper, urban and university-educated professionals who “have become genuinely globally-oriented in their careers and personal lives”. International postings – particularly appointments at the UN, or senior roles at a major British bank – are particularly sought-after and lauded.

John Weissenberger, “The Laurentian “Elite”: Canada’s ruling class” at C2C Journal (November 26, 2019)

The elite knows when it must be sensitive to what almost sound like orders (as well as threats) from Beijing:

China’s new ambassador to Canada on Friday warned Ottawa not to follow the U.S. lead and formally back protesters in Hong Kong, saying such a move would cause “very bad damage” to already poor ties with Beijing.

Canada, locked in a trade and diplomatic dispute with China, has repeatedly expressed concern about the safety of its 300,000 citizens in Hong Kong, hit by five months of mass demonstrations for more democracy and autonomy…

“If somebody here really tries to … have this kind of law like that in the United States, it’s very dangerous,” said Chinese envoy Cong Peiwu, speaking in English.

David Ljunggren, “China envoy warns of ‘very bad damage’ if Canada follows U.S. lead on Hong Kong” at Reuters

He means, of course, dangerous to Canadians in territory claimed by the Chinese. They are sometimes arrested and detained; in one case, the move was seen as retaliation for Canada’s efforts to rein in the operations within Canada of Chinese telecom giant Huawei.

Friends of Mind Matters News who monitor the Hong Kong situation find ironic the fact that China “keeps telling other countries not to interfere China’s internal affairs, but they are telling Canada how Canada should behave.” Overall, it’s no wonder that some commentators complain that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (above right) is “more respectful to China than he is to America.” Mr. Trudeau has reasons for that.

But even in the United States, where freedom of expression is on a much firmer footing than in Canada, there can be considerable cultural complicity with Beijing’s demands:

The future is young — unless China says otherwise.

DC Comics has removed a piece of artwork from social media that was meant to promote a new Batman comic after Chinese critics claimed the artwork showed support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

The image by artist Rafael Grampa shows a version of Batwoman holding a Molotov cocktail in front of pink lettering that says: “The future is young.”

Josh K. Elliott, “DC Comics deletes Batman poster after China claims it’s pro-Hong Kong” at Global News (November 29, 2019)

The reference to the “young” is a sore point with Beijing; it was, for example, the young people’s vote that decimated the pro-Beijing factions in Hong Kong’s recent municipal elections. Also, the Bat masks (though they go back to the beginning of the superhero’s original story in 1939) remind sensitive souls of the masks Hongkongers wear to frustrate China’s facial recognition software. Perhaps the main significance of the story is how quickly DC Comics—like Gap, also an American company—toed the line.

As the young Hongkong activists ask for world support—in a world increasingly fearful of supporting them—here’s one of the many ironies: China pursues policies that many Western countries’ commentators harshly criticize if pursued, even inadvertently, in the United States. For example, racist and sexist algorithms unearthed from American or other Western world sources received appropriately widespread bad publicity. But in China, high-tech racial profiling is an accepted social policy in dealing with the Uyghurs that is largely undiscussed.

Meanwhile, the Hongkongers battle on, a defunct empire behind, a void ahead, and few allies around.

Further reading: How business in China becomes ethically expensive Hong Kong raises the cost of rights and freedoms rhetoric steeply. Many advocates [in the United States] are bowing out (Heather Zeiger)


The internet doesn’t free anyone by itself China is testing 100% surveillance on the Uighurs, a strategically critical minority (Heather Zeiger)

Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul; and with neurosurgeon Michael Egnor of the forthcoming The Human Soul: What Neuroscience Shows Us about the Brain, the Mind, and the Difference Between the Two (Worthy, 2025). She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

Weighing the Costs of China’s High-Tech Power