Saturday, October 17, 2020

CHIcom Supporters of Meng Wanzhou; Chinese Propaganda in Canada


Some Canadian schools see China's Confucius Institute as a handy teaching tool. Others reject it as propaganda

At Kildare School in Edmonton, Laur An-Yochim, centre, and classmates wait for instructions in both Mandarin and English during gym class. The Edmonton Public School Board's agreement with the Chinese government has produced thousands of bilingual students since 2007, but other schools have severed ties with the program over concerns that its state-funded model will result in too much censorship and foreign interference. (Terry Reith/CBC)

After tying his sneaker shoelace, Laur An-Yochim jumps back to his feet. 

Gym is his favourite class, and the fifth-grader does not intend to miss a moment of physical literacy consultant Stacey Hannay's instructions.

"What is this in Mandarin?" Hannay asks, hopping around the basketball court inside Kildare School in Edmonton.

The students yell the answer, then move along to a game that involves finding hidden trinkets underneath rows of plastic cups, following directions shouted in English and Mandarin. 

Kildare is one of 14 schools in the Edmonton Public School Board's jurisdiction that takes part in programming offered by the Confucius Institute. That includes Mandarin classes but also other subjects taught in Mandarin, ranging from physical education to math.

The Institute is partly funded by China's Ministry of Education and offers programming at elementary and high schools, as well as colleges and universities across Canada. China provides annual funding to run the programs as well as Chinese instructors who are are paid by China. In Edmonton's case, they work alongside the school's regular teachers to deliver language immersion programming.

Operates around the world

Much of Confucius Institute programming consists of classes in language and aspects of Chinese culture, such as calligraphy. China says it helps operate more than 500 of them around the world. In Canada, eight colleges and universities and three school boards have signed agreements with the organization. 

Some critics, including the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), accuse the Institute of political interference and censorship in some of its classes, but the EPSB says it hasn't experienced those problems and has had thousands of its students complete the program since it first struck an agreement with Beijing in 2007.

For An-Yochim and other students, the immersion program means his Mandarin is as smooth as his English. He switches effortlessly between the two and says knowing one of the world's most widely spoken languages has allowed him to connect with his grandparents when he visits China annually.

"They say every year, 'Wow, how are you this tall? Or, 'Your Chinese is really good this year,'" he said. 

WATCH | Students at Kildare School in Edmonton test out their Mandarin:

Students at Kildare School in Edmonton explain what they get out of the Manadarin classes offered by the Confucius Institute. 1:13

School board trustees flown to China

The Edmonton school board insists it carefully reviews teaching materials and has no concerns about controversial subjects getting suppressed in class.

The board receives annual funding from China to run the program, and 10 EPSB delegates flew there to renew the deal last October at Beijing's expense.

"I needed to go to see what it is, what does this look like? Right? What is the value?" said Trisha Estabrooks, the board's chairperson and a former CBC News journalist, who was part of the delegation, there for six days.

EPSB board chair Trisha Estabrooks was among 10 delegates who flew to China on Beijing's dime to renew the board's Confucius agreement last year. She went for six days while others stayed a week or two. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"I learned about the value that some of our principals in Edmonton Public see in having that partnership." 

Estabrooks does not believe her independence as a trustee was compromised by having the trip expenses covered by China. 

 "Taxpayer dollars were not used," she said. 

"I'd be concerned about the optics if Alberta taxpayer dollars were used to pay for my trip to China. I would not have gone on that trip." 

Money not only concern, critics say

But Kathleen Lowrey, a cultural anthropologist at the University of Alberta, doesn't want her nine-year-old daughter anywhere near Confucius programs.

"We're inviting them into elementary schools that Canadian taxpayers have paid for," she said. "It's important to separate Chinese culture and language and civilization from the Chinese state." 

Lowrey supports student exposure to Chinese culture, but she worries the country's government "has very different values from Canada." She cited the example of two Canadian citizens — Fan Wei and Robert Lloyd Schellenberg — who were sentenced to death in China for drug offences.

Cultural anthropologist Kathleen Lowery spoke out against the Edmonton Public School Board's agreement renewal last year. (Peter Evans/CBC )

Some schools that originally took on Confucius Institute programs have since severed their ties. In 2013, McMaster University in Hamilton ended its contract with the organization after a teacher, Sonia Zhao, left the Institute, citing discriminatory hiring practices over her membership in the Falun Gong religious group.

The Toronto District School Board dropped out of a partnership before it got off the ground five years ago. 

At the time, Concordia and McGill universities in Montreal told CBC they were approached by China but never signed up. McGill cited a lack of safeguards to ensure its academic freedoms.

New Brunswick's Education Department, meanwhile, is opting out completely by 2022, calling the program "Chinese propaganda."

CSIS flags institute as propaganda tool

A 2013 intelligence report by CSIS warned that Chinese leaders identified Confucius as "an organization for spreading propaganda and building soft power" and spoke of a "perception that CIs do not allow discussion of topics that the Chinese government deems sensitive," such as the political situation in Tibet and Taiwan or the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. 

Katelyn Chau, centre, focuses on a problem-solving exercise in class at Kildare School. The Edmonton Public School Board says 2,143 students enrolled in its Confucius program during this academic year. (Terry Reith/CBC )

Other foreign-government funded institutions promoting culture and education operate in Canada, including Germany's Goethe Institute, Spain's Cervantes Institute and the British Council, but CSIS placed the Confucius Institute in a different category.

"Unlike the British Council, whose charter ensures that it is free from political interference, the CIs are closely linked to the Chinese part state," the report said.

In 2014, the director of the Confucius Institute in Quebec told CBC she was visited by CSIS agents shortly after setting up shop in Montreal, and they only left her alone after she threatened to file a human-rights complaint.

Various levels of transparency

Determining exactly what kind of contracts are in place between Canadian schools and the Confucius Institute can be tricky. 

CBC News reached out to eight higher-education institutions to find out about their agreements with China. Four of them didn't respond:

  • Dawson College in Montreal.
  • Seneca College in Toronto.
  • Carleton University.
  • Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario.

The University of Waterloo, the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Regina and Halifax's St. Mary's University disclosed that they renewed their contracts in 2016 but only Waterloo and the Saskatchewan schools provided copies to CBC News. St. Mary's asked CBC to fill out a freedom of information request.

The Coquitlam School District in British Columbia and the Edmonton Public School Board provided copies of their agreements. The two boards' contracts specify that China's role will include providing a set amount of annual funding but don't spell out an amount other than a one-time "start-up" contribution of $150,000 in Coquitlam's case. 

Pay or set limits, ex-diplomat says

If Canadian educational institutions have to accept foreign funding, they should control the curriculum, said Gordon Houlden, a former diplomat with the Canadian government who has worked in Hong Kong and Beijing.

Gordon Houlden, the director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta, says there are many good reasons to share biological samples between labs, but any transfers must follow proper protocols. (Terry Reith/CBC)

"If there isn't enough money available, it's very hard sometimes ... to say no," said Houlden, who now heads the China Institute at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, which is mostly funded by the province and receives no money from China.

Houlden says young Canadians should continue learning about an important economic power like China, but the funding for any such education programs should come from local governments or school boards. 

"The 21st century will be, in my view, dominated by Asia," he said.

Read the stories in this series:

The scene outside the offices of the Toronto public school board was raucous.

It was October 2014, and the board was planning to vote on a contract with the Confucius Institute, a Chinese-government affiliated organization that had offered to teach Mandarin to the city’s schoolchildren.

Critics decried the arrangement, calling the institute a propaganda or espionage arm of the Chinese state. But its supporters were out in force, scores of them, rallying noisily and waving Chinese flags in the heart of Canada’s biggest city.

“You are a damn traitor to China,” one of them shouted to an institute opponent of Chinese descent. “Down with traitors!”

The demonstration was no spontaneous occurrence. Three days earlier, as the Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations hosted a farewell banquet for a departing Chinese diplomat, Consul General Fang Li had urged locals to come out in support of the institute.

The confederation, according to the local MingPao newspaper, echoed his call, predicting 500 would attend the rally.

The Toronto trustees eventually voted to send the Institute packing. But Confucius is now entrenched at three other school boards and on nine university and college campuses across Canada.

And the Toronto dispute underscored Beijing’s sometimes surprising reach into Canada, as the Vancouver arrest of Meng Wanzhou, an executive with telecommunicaitons giant Huawei, triggers a bitter diplomatic feud between the countries.

China has long strived to influence and monitor Chinese-Canadians, Chinese citizens who study here and Canadian society as a whole — and done the same in many other countries. In recent years, however, that project appears to have surged in importance.

Since rising to prominence in 2012, the country’s paramount leader, Xi Jinping, has overseen what one leading academic expert calls a “massive expansion” in China’s use of soft power overseas, much of it under the auspices of the United Front Work Department, a shadowy offshoot of the Chinese communist party.

The United Front began in pre-revolutionary China, used by the party to co-opt non-communist groups into its struggle for power. In recent years, it has been increasingly deployed to win over ethnic Chinese in other countries — and the broader societies around them.

“United Front work has taken on a level of significance not seen since the years before 1949,” Anne-Marie Brady, a political scientist at New Zealand’s University of Canterbury, told a U.S. conference last year. “(China) is increasingly able to use its soft-power ‘magic weapons’ to help influence the decision-making of foreign governments and societies.”

Operating partly through officials in foreign missions, its activities include influencing the Chinese diaspora to back China, co-opting foreign political and economic elites, promoting Beijing’s agenda worldwide and forming a China-centred economic bloc, the political science professor says.

And doing “United Front work” is considered the duty of all party members — who now include a majority of Chinese corporate CEOs — not just the department itself, says Brady.

Xi himself has quoted Mao’s description of the United Front as one of the communists’ “magic weapons,” and has elevated its role in the party, adding 40,000 staff to the department as it absorbs three government agencies, according to Gerry Groot, a China-studies lecturer at Australia’s University of Adelaide.

Last August, Xi made a direct appeal to people of Chinese background in nations like Canada — what Beijing calls the “overseas Chinese” — urging them to “remember the call from the Party and the people, spread China’s voice, support the country’s 

Article content continued

The Huawei research and development centre at Dongguan, China. PHOTO BY ANDY WONG/AP, FILE

Charles Burton, a political scientist at Ontario’s Brock University who closely monitors China-related rights issues, says one of the United Front’s key goals is to soften opinions around issues like Chinese companies’ acquisition of Canadian natural resources and technology, or the looming decision Canada must make about Huawei’s involvement in building the country’s 5G telecom network. The company, considered to have close links to the Chinese state and having for years faced accusations of corporate espionage, was barred from taking part in 5G trials in the U.S., Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand — the four countries that with Canada comprise the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance.

It’s difficult to map exactly how the United Front Work Department deploys its resources in places like Canada. But Burton argues its influence — helped by immigration in the last two decades made up increasingly of people raised under Communist rule on the Chinese mainland — has been tangible. He believes a “substantial” portion of Chinese diplomatic staff in Canada are likely United Front operatives, interacting with Chinese-Canadian leaders, politicians, students and others.

And there are a lot of those staffers. Global Affairs Canada lists 211 accredited representatives of China, not much less than the 276 fielded by the U.S., Canada’s closest ally and neighbour. The U.K. has 38.

The Chinese embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

Most of the Chinese-language media in Canada are now owned by businesses tied to Beijing, offering positive coverage of China, while Chinese-Canadian community groups have largely fallen under the sway of the “motherland,” Burton says.

I think there is definitely an attempt to influence domestic public opinion here

In his own region, the Niagara Chinese Cultural Association used to be dedicated to domestic causes and reaching out to the wider community, but now seems just as interested in cheering on a rising China, says Burton, a fluent Mandarin speaker. Both the Canadian and Chinese flags are raised at meetings today, and there was even discussion of adding the Chinese anthem, he says.

“An organization that once had another purpose has gradually been taken over to serve China’s national interest. Where United Front work becomes problematic is when it’s engaging persons of Chinese origin who have Canadian citizenship … to serve the interests of the motherland, when in fact the motherland should be Canada.”

One of the Niagara group’s leaders denies there has been any change in direction, or political thrust.

“Our executive committee’s background is a combination of Canada, mainland China, Taiwan and Chinese from other Asian countries,” says Li Yu, the association’s former president. “Support for China is not and will not be a focus … Our primary focus is to support the Chinese community and to promote Chinese culture in Niagara.”

Yet Michel Juneau-Katsuya, former Asia-Pacific chief for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, documented ties between the leaders of a number of Chinese-Canadian groups and China, arguing in a presentation to the Toronto school board the groups “are following Beijing’s request, not the Canadian constituents.”

The Confederation of Toronto Chinese Canadian Organizations has joined forces with the local consulate on contentious issues other than just the Confucius Institute, while China’s Overseas Affairs Office — under Xi, now officially part of the United Front — heaped praise on the group in a recent online article, since removed, that cited its willingness to defend Chinese interests.

Confederation executives could not be reached for comment. Their website talks of building “a truly beautiful and wonderful homeland — Canada,” while pledging to also help strengthen both the bridge of friendship to China, and China’s economic development.

In August 2018, Chinese president Xi Jinping made a direct appeal to ethnic Chinese residents of countries such as Canada — what Beijing calls the “overseas Chinese” — urging them to “remember the call from the Party and the people, spread China’s voice, support the country’s development, safeguard national interests.” PHOTO BY WU HONG - POOL/GETTY IMAGES/FILES

Even an Ottawa Chinese senior’s group was not immune.

The Ontario Human Rights Tribunal ruled in 2006 the association had violated the law by throwing out a member who practiced Falun Gong. Asked to explain the decision, one group leader allegedly said the expelled senior was “against the Chinese government,” another that the organization had to “maintain unity and solidarity” with Beijing, the tribunal reported.

Still, not all experts are convinced that China’s attempts to shape opinion in Canada have borne much fruit.

“I have heard of Chinese influence over community newspapers,” said Jeremy Paltiel, a China specialist at Carleton University. “(But) I think the Canadian Chinese community is remarkably resilient and diverse, and for the most part immune to blandishments from the Chinese government.”

“I think there is definitely an attempt to influence domestic public opinion here,” Lynette Ong, a University of Toronto professor and China expert, said in an interview. “But from what I see, the extent of success here is rather limited.”

And the Canadian government has been reluctant to do what Australia did earlier this year and implement laws geared to countering undue foreign influence. A spokesman for Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland did not respond when asked whether Canada would now consider such legislation.

A parliamentary panel discussion last October co-sponsored by independent Sen. Yuen Pau Woo and MPs and senators from the NDP, Liberals and Conservatives also concluded the Chinese-Canadian community — diverse and well aware of what China is up to — is largely impervious to the United Front’s pressures.

United Front work has taken on a level of significance not seen since the years before 1949

In a report, the closed-door panel recommended avoiding the “excesses” in criticism of Chinese influence seen in Australia and the U.S., and suggested the bigger issue was building stronger political, economic and cultural ties between Canada and China.

But politicians themselves have also been the target of Beijing’s influence campaigns.

In the Antipodes, where the issue has been most prominent, a New Zealand MP landed in hot water after his pre-immigration past as a member of Chinese military intelligence was revealed, while an Australian senator quit amid revelations that he had taken pro-China positions after getting donations from a Beijing-linked tycoon.

Ong argues that Beijing’s political influence in Canada has been negligible compared to what has happened in New Zealand or Australia, whose economies are far more dependent on China.

Yet a training manual for United Front cadres, obtained by the Financial Times newspaper, notes with approval that the number of politicians of Chinese descent elected in Toronto had almost doubled between 2003 and 2006.

Department officials should “aim to work with” those and other individuals who have prospects for advancement, the manual advises, while offering no details of what exactly that means.

It’s not just politicians of Chinese background who are targeted, whether by the United Front or others linked to Beijing.

Huawei Technologies Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou exits court following a bail hearing at British Columbia Superior Courts in Vancouver on Dec. 11, 2018. PHOTO BY CTV VIA AFP/GETTY IMAGES

Prime Minister Trudeau was forced on the defensive in 2016 when it emerged that he took part in a private fundraiser attended by a Chinese billionaire with close ties to his country’s leadership. A billionaire who then donated $250,000 to the charitable Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation and the raising of a Trudeau statue.

At least nine MPs have taken trips to China in recent years — usually flying business class — that were paid for by Chinese government agencies, indicate Ethics Commissioner records, which don’t include former members. The Canada-China Legislative Association meets regularly — and as recently as this month — with members of the Chinese People’s Congress. The Congress is an unelected body that rubber-stamps Communist Party decisions, not equivalent to Canada’s Parliament, Burton notes.

While a backbench MP, Canada’s current ambassador to China, John McCallum, accepted $73,000 worth of trips to the country, paid for by both the Chinese government and pro-Beijing business groups, the Globe and Mail has reported. McCallum was forced to withdraw comments he made this week suggesting Meng had a strong case that her arrest at the behest of U.S. prosecutors was politically motivated.

Chinese-Canadian politicians, meanwhile, have to be cognizant that recent Chinese immigrants are mostly products of the mainland Communist regime, said Kenny Chiu, a losing 2015 federal Conservative candidate in B.C.

“That has a significant impact or influence on the view of China in the community,” Chiu said. “There are many immigrants coming to Canada who are actually very proud of the development that has occurred in the motherland.”

To encourage such leanings, the United Front’s tools include both the Confucius Institutes, and the less-well-known Chinese Students and Scholars Associations at post-secondary institutions across Canada — and in numerous other countries.

The associations are sometimes dispatched to counteract protests against visiting Chinese dignitaries, promote the homeland and monitor the activities of Chinese students, Burton says.

In an echo of the Toronto school board protest, shortly after Meng’s arrest a little-known Chinese women’s group held a news conference in Vancouver to call for her release — though they said they had no link to the People’s Republic — and another group rallied outside the courthouse in her support.

Meanwhile, a leaked video obtained and translated by the Falun Gong appears to show an embassy first secretary briefing students about a planned pro-China demonstration on Parliament Hill in 2010, promising them food and accommodation. The work was mandatory for any student funded by the Chinese government, he said.

It would be a “battle that relates to defending the reputation of our Motherland,” the diplomat says on the recording.

People hold a sign at a B.C. courthouse prior to the bail hearing for Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer on Monday, December 10, 2018. PHOTO BY JONATHAN HAYWARD /The Canadian Press

Students coached by embassy staff staked out an Ottawa hotel all night in 2016 to welcome visiting Chinese Premier Li Keqing the next afternoon — and try to drown out protesters, says Grace Wollensak, a Falun Gong spokeswoman who was there.

Lingdi Zhong, a Falun Gong practitioner and Chinese student, told the authors of an Amnesty International-led, confidential report on intimidation tactics by Beijing in Canada that the vice-president of the University of Ottawa association warned her in 2005 his group was under the guidance of the Chinese embassy and that she was being watched.

China’s actions may raise questions about the appropriate role of a foreign power in domestic affairs, but they are unlikely to be debated in Canada’s Chinese-language media.

With the exception of Epoch Times, founded by Falun Gong practitioners but not run by the group, and one or two other newspapers, most toe Beijing’s line, says Cheuk Kwan, head of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.

Journalists from such outlets have told him they sometimes even get calls from the consulate with advice on what to cover, and not cover.

Whether all this has an impact depends on the individual, when they immigrated and where they came from, adds Kwan.

“A lot of people don’t think of the long arm of influence of China in Canada, because they’re under the influence, to put it mildly,” he says. “Outsiders like me, who is a Hong Kong immigrant … we see very clearly that this is a United Front effort, a very subtle, soft-power kind of advance into Canadian society.”

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments always welcome!