He was a curious 23-year-old in a bustling train station somewhere in China, at the height of its busiest season, Chinese New Year. He and his two friends didn’t have tickets, but it didn’t matter.
“It was wonderful,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week in Beijing as he recalled his first adult excursion to the country. He’d been to China before, of course — as a child, with his father visiting on official political business — but this trip was different.
“The landscapes I got to see, the discovery of myself through travelling through China was extraordinary for me.”
Trudeau referenced the formative influence of his backpacking experiences in China repeatedly this week as he tried to sell the merits of doubling the number of Chinese tourists next year. With his pursuit of free trade, it is one part of a major plan to deepen relations with the economically ascendant People’s Republic, the country Pierre Trudeau established relations with the year before he was born.
The attempt to create a tourism boon comes amid concern over a more malevolent form of cross-cultural influence — a deliberate and unprecedented effort by Chinese President Xi Jinping to project the power of his country in ways that some say amounts to international political meddling.
“China does have a strategy for influencing public opinion and political opinion in other countries on issues that are important to China,” said David Mulroney, a former Canadian ambassador to China and a senior national security adviser.
Under Xi, China has undertaken a co-ordinated campaign known as the “united front” to influence events in foreign countries, including Canada, said Mulroney.
That includes mobilizing Chinese students and tapping the diaspora in Canada. During past visits by Chinese leaders to Ottawa, the Chinese embassy has bussed in students from Kingston and Montreal to counter the inevitable demonstrations against the Chinese government, he said.
The protests are commonplace, ranging from the treatment of religious minorities in Tibet to allegations of organ harvesting.
“The Chinese communist successfully links patriotism to support for the party and the government,” Mulroney said. Chinese students often bristle at reading criticism about their country when abroad and feel embattled, so it can drive them to be “super patriots.”
It has similarities to what Canada does in the United States by reaching out to Congress, business leaders and others to sell the merits of NAFTA — with one key difference.
“We do that above board, we do that publicly. Where China differs is its willingness to use diaspora groups, people who have an economic stake in China to work behind the scenes,” Mulroney said.
“That’s a form of interference in Canadian affairs.”
This article continues at [National Observer] Watch China’s efforts to influence as Canada pursues trade, says former envoy