I remarked, albeit only in passing, on the media’s role in the campaign to persuade Canada that it should do a prisoner exchange: Meng Wanzhou for the “Two Michals,” Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. My comment was that the Globe and Mail‘s front page was devoted ~ item after item ~ to that issue.
It occurred to me that the people who are lobbying so hard, on China’s behalf, for Meng Wanzhou’s release have easy access to the media ~ they, Louise Arbour, Jean Chrétien, Eddie Goldenberg and Allan Rock are important people they are well connected, they are good, trusted sources and they are part and parcel of the top level of the Laurentian Elites and they are not the sorts of people upon who good journalists turn their backs ~ and it seems that someone mounted an organized campaign to get the media’s attention. Of course, I don’t doubt, not for a µsecond, that Madame Justice Arbour and former Conservative Senator Hugh Segal and all the other luminaries who signed a letter to the prime minister saying that “releasing Meng could also free Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the two Canadians who were detained in China shortly after Meng’s arrest,” actually care about Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. They certainly do, they are good people of good conscience. None sees herself or himself as an agent of the Chinese government. They are all good Canadians, concerned only that other Canadians are being held hostage by a cruel dictatorship. As Rober Fowler, a distinguished former diplomat and very senior public servant who was himself, held hostage in Africa a few years ago, said, to CBC News (link above) “the world is “nastier and meaner” and rules-based systems aren’t as effective as they once were in controlling the kind of behaviour China exhibits … [and, he added] … “I think we’ve got to bend every effort to bring these guys home” … [we must] … “Make concessions. It’s an imperfect world … it’s not a good idea to pay ransom, that said, you do what you’ve got to do to look after your people.”“
I agree with Mr Fowler. China does not obey the rules and nothing Canada can do will change that. If we do not “make concessions” and “bend every effort” to bring the Two Michaels home, and if Meng Wanzhou is sent to the USA to face criminal charges then Mr Kovrig and Mr Spavor could well face execution by a Chinese firing squad. No one can doubt that. The issue, for the Two Michaels, is nothing less than life and death. Xi Jinping will not hesitate to send a message to Canada and the world. Meng Wanzhou matters to him; Canada dos not. Those are the hard realities.
But I began to wonder about the media’s role when I read this article in The Guardian. Now, I have talked at some length about information and disinformation and “war in the grey zone” as part of warfare, especially Cold Warfare, a couple of years ago. But The Guardian says that in the not too distant past, China’s story “would have been told through clumsy Communist party propaganda broadcast on its state-run news outlets. But during our research for the International Federation of Journalists, we found that Beijing is increasingly outsourcing the storytelling to foreign journalists, who often end up amplifying its messages in their own languages in the pages of their own news outlets … [and] … At one roundtable discussion in Myanmar, all journalists present had been on all-expenses paid tours to China. One had been nine times. This was when we realised just how systematic and sophisticated China’s global outreach campaign had become. In fact, journalists in half the 58 countries we surveyed said they’d been on such trips. Much of the reporting that came out was positive. While some were bowled over by China’s modernity and technological developments, others said they’d signed agreements promising not to write critical reports. It’s worth noting that at a time when foreign reporting budgets are shrinking, almost all those who took part believed these tours to be beneficial to their national media.” Is the media a new “front” in Cold War 2.0?
Once again, I do not believe that the Globe and Mail‘s writers and editorial team (nor the CBC‘s nor The Star‘s nor Global‘s, etc) are acting for the Chinese government … but it would be interesting for Canadian media outlets to tell us how many of their owners, publishers, editors and journalists have been on all-expenses-paid visits to China.
(For the record, in the 1990s, when I was a serving military officer and on an official visit to China, the Chinese government “subsidized” my personal sightseeing by providing my “minder”* (an interpreter, guide and helper) free of charge for about two weeks, and she used the power of her official position to get us better seats on the train, to the front of every line, etc. I reported that to my boss and to the security staff in National Defence HQ and they had already pre-cleared the matter. In fact, they encouraged me to take some annual leave for a “sightseeing” trip, mostly at my own expense, to learn what I could about China in order to make my own official negotiations more fruitful and my reports more useful. Everyone understood that the Chinese’ government’s offer of “help” was self-serving.)
There’s not thing inherently wrong with taking an all-expenses-paid trip to China, or to Brazil or Israel or Saudi Arabia, either, IF you tell your employers, readers and so on that you’ve done so and that you did so in an effort to learn more about the country about which you are reporting.
(And, as another aside, I was “reporting” on China to my bosses in Ottawa. They were interested in my views on technology, especially, including what I could see about Chinese manufacturing and education. My Chinese hosts knew that. I was not an accredited attaché; I was a senior officer who was engaged in official discussion with China on matters within my official purview, and the Chinese were, I am 100% certain, interested in shaping my opinions for their own benefit. It is, I believe, the same with journalists and public figures ~ influencers as they are sometimes called.)
China is especially active, The Guardian says, in less developed countries, but, as we have seen with e.g. the Confucius Institute, the Chinese are conducting influence operations everywhere, including right here in Ottawa. The media, here in Canada, is a prime target. The Chinese will not try direct bribery; we are, I hope, a little too sophisticated for that. But they will try to influence opinion and using well-meaning dupes in the Laurentian Elites is one way of achieving their aims.
Is it that former Conservative foreign affairs minister and ambassador to France ⇐ Lawrence Cannon, former Conservative senator ⇒ Hugh Segal and former NDP leader Ed Broadbent are unwitting Chinese dupes? No, certainly not … not knowingly anyway. Are they being manipulated (fed misinformation) by some people (“influencers“) who are in the (indirect) pay of the Chinese government? I don’t know, but it is possible.
What’s undeniable is that there is a full-blown, organized campaign underway to return Meng Wanzhou to China. And let’s be perfectly clear: that is China’s aim. The 19 signatories of the recent letter can only “hope” that China will reciprocate and release Messers Kovrig and Spavor. The signatories have another aim which they say is to ““untie Canada’s hands”” (their words) because the extradition business is ““hobbling Canada’s foreign policy at a time when it is crucial to define it with clarity and boldness.”” That’s a legitimate aim, but I’m not sure I agree that honouring legal extradition treaties “ties our hands.”
There are other ways to respond to China. As the reports say, “a dozen Canadian senators are calling on Ottawa to take a harder line with China and impose sanctions on top Communist Party officials in response to what they call “tyrannical behaviour” by the regime.” That would, certainly, “untie Canada’s hands” and it would also define our policy towards China with “clarity and boldness.” It might also, possibly, send the Two Michaels to the firing squad.
Do two lives matter that much? Did the lives of Robert Hall ⇐ and John Ridsdel ⇒ who were brutally beheaded in 2015 by the Abu Sayyaf Islamic terrorist Bhen Tatuh matter less? Did it matter who did the hostage-taking? I wondered, back in 2015: why the hesitation? Why not, I thought, ask Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte to accept the temporary loan of a team of Canada’s JTF2 special operators. They might not have been able to save Messers Hall and Ridsdel but they would have been able to very publicly kill 20 or even 200 Abu Sayyaf terrorists and then say this is the price of murdering Canadians. But that wasn’t Justin Trudeau’s style, was it?
We, the US-led West, are now in Cold War 2.0 (link up above) with China. We, Canadians, may not like the West‘s ‘leader,’ if that’s the appropriate word, but, at least, the enemy is clear … as clear as it was in Cold War 1.0 (1945-1990). It’s NOT China, per see, it is Xi Jinping’s aggressive, bullying, devil-take-the-hindmost version of China. We, Canadians, may not like President Donald Trump, heaven knows I do not, but that is not an excuse to abandon our traditional principles and values and the West and kowtow to Paramount Leader Xi Jinping. President Trump may lose in 2020, he may not even run. Xi might lose his grip on power … he may not be as secure as he seems to most outsiders. There is, simply, no compelling reason, not even, sad to say, the very lives of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, to surrender to China now.
I sympathize with Prime Minister Trudeau. I’m sure he wants to save the Two Michaels and I’m reasonably confident that he wants to do what’s right for Canada viz-à-viz China ~ and I urge Conservatives, led by Erin O’Toole and Leona Alleslev to get behind him on this. A little bipartisanship will serve Canada well on this issue, as long as the prime minister stays on-side. But he and his advisors and those counselling a prisoner exchange need to remember that principles ought to trump policy and policy must trump politics. What we are seeing on the front page of our daily papers and on our TV screens, I am convinced, is just another new “front” being opened in one small part of Cold War 2.0. The Chinese are using influence operations to try to achieve their ends which includes separating Canada from our friends and allies. Let’s not fall for it.
* Old hands in some foreign places will remember that there are fixers and minders. Fixers are hired by e.g. corporations and news organizations and by embassies to help executives, reporters and senior officials (I was never senior enough ~ I think it was limited to Assistant Deputy Ministers, sometimes directors-general if they were heads od delegation) in strange places. Fixers were interpreters, guides and general helpers, sometimes even bodyguards. Minders did everything fixers did, usually (in my limited experience) better, but they were official; mine was assigned by the Chinese Ministry of Defence and I had no choice about her ~ thankfully she was pleasant and efficient. My minder had a seemingly magical ID card; she was able to move us to the front of almost every line and upgrade air and rail tickets (all at no charge), something that fixers could not do. Of course, she had other duties which included ensuring that I did NOT see or hear what I was not supposed to see or hear. It was just part of dealing with official China.