A recent meeting of the Canada-China parliamentary committee played out something akin to a courtroom drama as one MP tried to get to the crux of a matter that all governments must now contend with: Can they trust the objectivity of their China experts?
In a meeting on Feb. 24, when a Liberal colleague on the committee challenged the relevance of Conservative MP Garnett Genuiss line of questioning to an expert witness, Genuis said it was important to establish the integrity of the advice the committee was receiving.
Genuis is among those calling for more scrutiny on financial ties between Canadian academic institutions and China.
“Should we be concerned about the fact that our institutions may be quite exposed to Chinese influence through various channels? And what can we do about that exposure?” Genuis said in an interview with The Epoch Times.
Several Canadian universities have partnerships with Chinese telecom giant Huawei worth millions of dollars, many host Beijing-funded Confucius Institutes, and many are reliant on tuition fees from international students from China, with university admins concerned that souring China-Canada tensions could lead to Beijing pulling these students back to China.
But there are other financial ties that havent been subjected to as much public scrutiny.
“So many think tanks are recipients of Peoples Republic of China-associated funding, and I think we need to demand much more transparency about where the money comes from,” said Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat to China and a senior fellow with the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, in an MLI forum last October. Burton was also one of the expert witnesses speaking during the Feb. 24 committee session.
Academics have historically played an important role in Canada-China relations, with some playing key roles in paving the way for Canadas establishment of formal ties with the Chinese communist regime in the 1970s, and influencing Canada-China policies in the years after.
Genuis was questioning Yves Tiberghien, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia, and executive director of the universitys China Council as well as director emeritus of the universitys Institute of Asian Research (IAR), during the Feb. 24 Canada-China committee meeting.
Genuis asked Tiberghien if China Council academics ask university admin for speaking points before speaking publicly, pointing to some of the University of British Columbias financial exposure to China-linked projects and initiatives, including a $7 million partnership with Huawei and the Vancouver Summer Program, a $10 million-generating initiative inviting international students to take summer courses.
“No,” Tiberghien responded, “and the main reason is because the prime role of a professor in a university is academic freedom.”
Tiberghien similarly answered “no” to the question of whether professors are involved in commercial negotiations with Huawei, and answered “not in many years” when asked if the China Council provides advice to the university on fundraising.
In his next round of questioning, Genuis read from emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act showing that Tiberghien wrote to UBCs vice president in charge of public relations and the universitys media relations senior director asking for advice on how to respond to a reporter on issues related to Huawei in January 2019.
“I can of course provide my expertise on the analysis of the larger Huawei event and Canada-China relations. But I will be asked about impact on UBC and UBC relations. So it is good for me to know well the official response,” Tiberghien wrote, adding, “And do you encourage me to do this interview?”
Genuis next presented an email sent in March 2019 by Paul Evans, another UBC professor and IAR and China Council member who also appeared before the Feb. 24 committee, writing to Tiberghien that “(four of five were with us) negotiating with HW [Huawei] now. Meigan made the case that this is an issue where UBC could play a national leadership role.”
Another email sent in the same month by Tiberghien regarding a Presidential Advisory Council on China reads, “Jack Austin [one of the co-chairs of the China Council] remains very excited about this process and thinks that it holds the key to a higher-quality relation of UBC with China, but also to fundraising related to China.”
The Epoch Times has seen copies of these email exchanges.
In response to Genuiss questions and comments, Tiberghien said what was presented was “taken out of context” and wasnt “representative of the usual function.”
“Out of 200 interviews I may have given in three years, this one may be the one where I asked for some thoughts,” he told the committee.
He also said the emails about Huawei were in response to discussions on the issue in Ottawa, saying that the “issue was not about managing media, it was responding to what we heard from government, and we had a very fair discussion.”
He added that fundraising is not a “primary goal” of the Presidential Advisory Council.
Genuis told The Epoch Times that he was concerned that two out of the six experts or entities appearing before the committee “were people specifically involved in the UBC China Council, and their involvement wasnt identified until after I pointed it out.”
“What I was able to demonstrate through the testimony is that the China Council at UBC appears to be having some discussions about the strategic interests of the university, even while people that are part of that Council, including professor Tiberghien, the executive director, are also offering advice to the wider public about engaging that relationship,” he said.
He added that the meeting brought out at a high level the “financial exposure that UBC and perhaps other institutions” have to Beijing-linked sources, saying the issue should raise concerns about “the influence of the Chinese government.”
Genuis requested in the meeting that the committee study the relationship between “Canadian universities and Chinese government-controlled entities,” and that the co-chairs of the UBC China Council appear before the committee as part of the study.
Echoing Business Interests
Genuis isnt the only one asking for more transparency in links between Chinese regime-associated entities and academia. Burton also thinks there is a need for more scrutiny on funding for Canadian think tanks.
The “domination of Chinese money” in Canada, Burton said during his October talk, is the reason why there is no “significant discourse” on issues related to China compared to what goes on in the United States and other countries.
Burton wrote in an MLI paper that former prime minister Pierre Trudeau and “the Red Tories of his period” had a general admiration for dictators such as Cubas Fidel Castro and Chinas Mao Zedong who challenged “U.S. liberal democratic political and economic agendas.”
“This paved the way for elite capture” by Chinas United Front Work Department (a Chinese Communist Party organization charged with spreading Beijings influence abroad), Burton argued, “with the result of a strong majority view in the uppermost circles of Canadian politics and business that catering to the will of the Communist Party should be Canadas policy toward China.”
“We have been told that it is these interests [of major businesses], as opposed to questions of national security, that should be at the core of Canadas China policy,” he writes. “This line is echoed by numerous think tanks, public policy schools, and government relations firms that focus on China.”
Burton cited China Research Partnership, a web portal launched in 2017 described as a joint effort by “leading Canadian institutions dedicated to the study of China,” as an example of a partnership between business-focused organizations and academic centres during his October talk.
“The top three members [of the partnership] are the Asia Pacific Foundation, the Canada China Business Council, and the Canada-China Institute for Business & Development. The bottom three members are the Institute for Asian Research at the University of British Columbia, the Munk School for Global Affairs University of Toronto, and the China Institute at the University of Alberta,” he said.
“You can see that the ones with the money are at the top of the list, and the ones producing the policy reports are below that, and one could assume that there is some relationship between the funding and the reluctance of these institutions to issue documents which suggest that there is anything wrong with what the Peoples Republic of China is doing,” he added.
The news of the start of the web portal was praised by the Chinese Embassy in Ottawa at the time of its launch, with a tweet reading “Thats a good move! Congratulations!”
The domain of the website is no longer active, redirecting users instead to the website of the Asia Pacific Foundation, a business-focused research institute.
Talks in Committee
Genuis said he found Burtons testimony at the Feb. 24 committee meeting “much more representative” of what he has observed about the situation in China and its behaviour compared to what he heard from the other witnesses.
On the geopolitics side, some witnesses said that both China and the United States are distorting the rule-based international order.
Genuis says its not reasonable to equate what is happening in the United States “around a possible changed nature of engagement with international institutions” to the “massively destabilizing efforts of the Chinese government.”
Burton said during his testimony that in the United States, there is “non-partisan political consensus” on the issue of China.
“Its not just Mr. [Donald] Trump. His nemesis Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi has also articulated that we need to stand up for the principles of the rules-based order, which protects middle powers like Canada from the arbitrary domination of hegemonic superpowers,” he said.
Evans, director emeritus of UBCs IAR and a past co-CEO of the Asia Pacific Foundation, said in his talk that “were facing a double challenge: a China challenge and an America challenge.”
“We need to push back against efforts to unravel or corrode the multilateral rules-based system, whether those challenges come from China or, as we have increasingly seen, from the United States,” he said.
Evans also stressed that there is a need for Canada to navigate “an independent course” on issues such as supporting Chinas Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank or its views on Chinas Belt and Road Initiative, an ambitious infrastructure plan to establish China-centred land and maritime trade routes. The initiative is seen as part of Beijings plan to expand its global influence and has been criticized as a “debt-trap” for some participating countries.
Tiberghien said that “to a large extent, the Canada-China crisis is part of the larger U.S.-China crisis and is a prism for challenges to the rules-based order.” He also said at one point that there is “broad support” for the Chinese regime in China, and that Chinese people “feel a sense of great progress, growing wealth and prosperity, greater freedom, except for political freedom, particularly the ability to criticize the Party.”
Jeremy Paltiel, a professor of political science at Carleton University, said in the committee meeting, “We cant simply rely on our ally [the United States] to protect us, because our ally has turned its back, in some ways, on the rules-based international order.” He also said that “Canadas prosperity and global influence depend on having a workable relationship with China,” adding that currently Canada has “the worst relationship of any of the G7 countries with China.”
Also speaking at the forum were representatives from the Canada West Foundation (CWF), one of whom said, “China has become an important trading partner for Canada and for Western Canada.”
More Diverse Opinions
André Laliberté, a professor of political studies focusing on China and Taiwan at the University of Ottawa, says its important for Canadas decision-makers to hear from experts with more diverse opinions than those they currently consult with.
“People in the Liberal Party certainly have their own mindset on what our policy [on China] should be, and theyre looking for people who will confirm their opinion,” he said in an interview.
“And its my impression after years of observation that the Liberal Party has a policy that tends to downplay issues such as human rights in China when it comes to trade.”
He adds that its a problem when the academic experts the government invites to Ottawa to give advice on China-related issues often tend to be not very critical of China.
Two of the main China-focused research centres hosted on Canadian campuses are the China Institute at the University of Alberta and the IAR at UBC.
The commentary section of the China Institutes website includes recent articles on the COVID-19 outbreak in China, Chinas arrest of Kovrig and Spavor, and the Hong Kong protests, among other topics.
One of the two pieces published on the Hong Kong protests in 2019, both of which are penned by the same author, notes in one part that some protestors damaged public property and injured police officers, adding that “Beijing has put the rule of law, as a direct response to the protests,” and that this deserves “some degree of respect by foreign governments.”
Of the eight articles published in 2018 up to December, when Meng was arrested in Canada and Kovrig and Spavor were subsequently detained in China:
-two commentaries urge Canada and China to seek closer relations despite restrictions imposed by the USMCA trade deal on Canadas engagement with non-market economies, i.e. China;
-one offers advice to Chinese state-owned companies that in order to seek approval for investments in Canada they should invest more funds in government relations and gaining “social capital” in Canada;
-one is a rebuttal by the institutes director, Gordon Houlden, about what he calls “troubling inferences” in an op-ed by Burton, in which Burton had argued for regulations to monitor retired civil servants and politicians who go into “lucrative businesses” with China-related sources;
-one piece is about a white paper published by Beijing on its Arctic policy, arguing that the “international community welcome the transparency and increasing confidence China shows in participating in Arctic governance.”
The other three pieces discuss U.S.-China relations, North Korea, and an import expo in China.
In an online post, Houlden says the federal government sends diplomats to the University of Albertas China Institute to train, adding, “Weve helped shape the views of a new generation of Canadian diplomats.”
The institute was founded in 2005 by Wenran Jiang, at the time a faculty member at the University of Alberta. In a January 2016 op-ed for The Gobe and Mail titled “Canada must stand up to the United States to secure deals with China,” published soon after the Liberals took power, Jiang wrote: “After a decade of inconsistency and lack of strategic vision by the Conservative government, a reset on China policy is indeed urgent.” Jiang was also at one point a senior fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation and a senior fellow at UBCs IAR.
In the articles section of the website of the Centre for Chinese Research at UBCs IAR, the last six postings are from 2018. Three are written fully or in part by Tiberghien; the other three are on family or labour issues in China or fertility issues relating to Chinas new two-child policy.
In October 2017, IAR member Evans, along with fellow UBC assistant professor Xiaojun Li, published a paper based on a survey on Canada-China relations, among other issues.
The paper said that 69 percent of Canadians support negotiating a free trade agreement with China, and that on “global leadership, there is a visible lack of confidence about the role of the United States.” The paper was reported on by Chinese state media Xinhua and China Daily, with the headline “Canadians growing more supportive of deeper trade ties with China: Study.”
The results of the survey were very different from a poll done by Nanos Survey for The Globe in June of that year showing support for a free trade agreement at 54 percent.
Financial Post columnist Kevin Libin said at the time that the survey in Evans and Lis paper used “unconventional methods,” built from UBCs own “online survey-making tool” and without a French version, largely excluding Quebec, “where enmity to Chinas corporate imperialism runs high.”
Jacob Kovalio, an associate professor in the Department of History at Carleton University, says the extent of the push for “China appeasement” policies in academia is exemplified by a post-2015 election op-ed written by academic Yuen Pau Woo, now a senator, who is also a senior fellow with UBCs IAR and a former head of the Asia Pacific Foundation.