As China’s anniversary events loom, Canadian leaders face dilemma: attend or not?

As China’s anniversary events loom, Canadian leaders face dilemma: attend or not?
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In the coming days, Chinese government officials across Canada will begin hosting events to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

The events present a dilemma for Canadian political leaders: amidst an ongoing diplomatic row sparked by the arrest last December of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, the continued detention in China of Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and ever-present concerns about China’s human rights record, do they attend or not?

For Charles Burton, who once served as a Canadian diplomat in Beijing, the answer should be a simple — and unequivocal — “no.”

“I judge it is highly inappropriate for any Canadians to participate in celebratory activities hosted by the Government of China, so long as Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig are being arbitrarily detained,” he said.

“Canadian attendance this year would be morally wrong.”

David Mulroney, former Canadian ambassador to China, takes a slightly more nuanced position, urging political leaders to find a middle ground between “insult and endorsement.” At the federal level, the government could send the foreign affairs minister’s parliamentary secretary to pay a “brief visit,” he suggested.

“That should be the sum of our official acknowledgement. While there is nothing to celebrate on the 70th anniversary of Communist Party rule in China, we don’t want to give hyper-sensitive Beijing an excuse for taking even more measures against us. But there should be no effusive message, no attempt to use this as a pathetic Canadian effort to get back in China’s good graces.”

The National Post canvassed municipal, provincial and federal leaders to find out whether they plan to attend upcoming PRC birthday celebrations. Responses were mostly lukewarm or non-committal.

Canadian attendance this year would be morally wrong

In Ottawa, the big event is a reception Sept. 25 being thrown by the Chinese embassy. Last year, according to an embassy press release, the Canadian government was represented by Scott Brison, then-Treasury Board president; Andrew Leslie, then-parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister; as well as senior bureaucrats, including the deputy minister of international trade and assistant deputy minister for Global Affairs Canada. The event was described as “festive” and “warm.”

The year prior, the reception was attended by, among others, Ahmed Hussen, the immigration minister, and Lawrence MacAulay, then-agriculture minister.

Asked what the government’s plans were this year, Global Affairs Canada took a full week before sending this brusque one-line response: “Canada’s official participation at events to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China is under consideration.”

Then a few hours later, spokesman Guillaume Berube called to clarify the statement. He said Canada would be participating, but he was unable to say which representatives would be attending and for which events.

A spokesman for the Chinese embassy in Ottawa said it’s not their practice to release guest lists ahead of the event.

Beijing is planning a large celebration, including a parade through Tiananmen Square that will reportedly showcase the country’s new military hardware. It is not known if Dominic Barton, Canada’s new ambassador to China, will attend.

Performers sing a patriotic song during an event in Hangzhou in China’s Zhejiang province, to celebrate the 70th year of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, Sept. 15, 2019. AFP/Getty Images

In Toronto, the Chinese consulate will be holding its own National Day reception on Friday. Last year, it was attended by federal Liberal MPs representing the Toronto area, including Mary Ng, the minister of small business and export promotion, and Rob Oliphant, the parliamentary secretary to the foreign affairs minister, as well as several Ontario provincial leaders, including Progressive Conservatives Raymond Cho, minister of seniors and accessibility, and Sheref Sabawy.

Ng’s schedule is not confirmed, her assistant said. Oliphant’s assistant said his participation was “under consideration.” Cho’s office said he hadn’t received an invitation. Sabawy will be attending, his staff said without any elaboration.

For the seventh year in a row, the Chinese consulate will also hold a flag-raising ceremony at Toronto City Hall Sept 30. Last year’s event was attended by Mayor John Tory and other city council members and featured a lion dance, the playing of the Chinese national anthem and speeches that highlighted the cultural exchanges and friendship between the two countries.

Asked if Tory would be participating this year, his spokesman Don Peat said: “We have yet to finalize the mayor’s schedule.”

In Calgary, Mayor Naheed Nenshi will be a no-show at a Chinese consulate reception Sept. 22 because his “schedule could not accommodate,” said his spokesman Adam Noble-Johnson.

“We have a good relationship with our Chinese consul general and he has attended events in the past,” he said.

We don’t want to give hyper-sensitive Beijing an excuse for taking even more measures against us

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney declined an invitation because he’ll be out of town, said his press secretary Christine Myatt.

Out on the West Coast, where B.C.-China relations are a critical backbone of the economy — the province leads the country in terms of exports to China (more than $6 billion); Vancouver’s airport hosts more Chinese carriers than any other airport in North America; and more than one-third of international students in B.C. are from China — political leaders have been cool to embrace 70th anniversary invitations from the Chinese consulate for receptions in Vancouver (Friday) and Victoria (Sept. 24).

Unlike his predecessor Gregor Robertson, who ingratiated last year’s audience with a few spoken lines in Mandarin, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart will be a no-show this year, according to Alvin Singh, his communications director.

“The mayor doesn’t find these kinds of events useful and, as a result, elects to skip them almost all of the time,” he said.

As freelance journalist Bob Mackin first reported, Premier John Horgan and Lt. Gov. Janet Austin have declined to be “guests of honour,” citing prior commitments and scheduling conflicts.

“Due to his busy schedule, the premier will not be able to attend these events,” Horgan’s spokesman George Smith told the Post in an email. But Bruce Ralston, the minister of jobs, trade and technology, and George Chow, minister of state for trade, will be attending.

“We share strong trade and cultural ties, with China being B.C.’s second-largest trading partner and almost 465,000 people of Chinese descent calling B.C. home,” said a statement from B.C.’s intergovernmental relations secretariat.

The mayor doesn’t find these kinds of events useful

Federal Conservative MP Alice Wong, who is running for re-election in Richmond Centre, which has a large Asian population, confirmed she will also be attending “because the way we advance forward is through dialogue.” She noted she will also be attending Taiwanese National Day event in October.

Federal NDP MP Jenny Kwan, who attended last year, will not be this year. Staff said “she needs to concentrate her time, especially in the evening, to knock on doors.”

In a letter addressed to the UBCM executive in June, Brad West, mayor of Port Coquitlam, said the Chinese government was engaged in hostile actions that were at odds with Canadian values and rule of law.

He cited the detention of Kovrig and Spavor, the crackdown on protests in Hong Kong and the treatment of ethnic Uyghurs and other Muslims.

“What line does the Chinese government have to cross before the UBCM says no more?” he wrote.

Delta Mayor George Harvie agreed, saying he was “opposed to foreign influence in our local affairs.” It was reported recently that every council member of White Rock, including the mayor, will be boycotting the reception.

Other mayors, such as Richmond’s Malcolm Brodie, have said they plan to attend.

“With the focus being on trade and economic development as opposed to geopolitics, I think that it shouldn’t be offensive that China would host a reception,” he said in a radio interview.

The Chinese consulate did not respond to the Post’s invitation to address the controversy.

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