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Debates in Canada about China are toxic — a reply to Derek Burney

Derek Burney’s blistering attack on my recent speech in the Senate reveals more about the toxic nature of debates on China, than it does about what I said.

He is entitled to disagree with my vote against the motion labelling the treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang a genocide and moving the Olympics away from China. What is unacceptable is his distortion of my speech and the use of a xenophobic trope.

“Many Canadians cannot listen to the news about Uighurs, even your government’s version of what is going on in Xinjiang, without reflecting on how terribly wrong our own experiment with Indigenous children in residential schools went”.

If Burney is incapable of such reflection, that is as much a statement about him as it is about me.

I go on to say:

“When it comes to the treatment of Indigenous peoples and minorities, repression and forced assimilation only leads to longer-term problems for society at large. Canadians are still wrestling with those longer-term problems in our society and it is impossible for us to not express concern over what we hear about Xinjiang.”

Hence, my position is diametrically opposite to what Burney assumes. It is precisely because we had a failed experiment in forced assimilation that we must speak to the Chinese about their own attempts at the same in Xinjiang.

Burney also laments that I did not mention the many failings of the Chinese state, when in fact I said:

“The PRC has been an illiberal, authoritarian state since its founding over 70 years. Without minimizing any of the repressive — perhaps even genocidal — acts against Uighurs in recent years, the accusations against the Chinese government — forced relocation, demolition of traditional homes and ways of living, coercive birth control, mandatory re-education, suppression of individual rights — are as old as the PRC itself.”

One might excuse Burney’s misreading of my speech as carelessness. But what to make of this statement?:

“If that is the style of government Sen. Woo prefers, then he is living in the wrong country.” To underscore the point, Burney takes pains to mention that I am an immigrant.

To the extent that anyone is “living in the wrong country,” it is those who hold the profoundly illiberal and un-Canadian idea that immigrants with unorthodox opinions about global issues should leave their adopted home.

As for the plight of our two compatriots who have been detained in China for nearly 1,000 days, I did not “sidestep” the issue, but said the following:

“This motion and others like it are not helpful in resolving some of the most pressing problems in the Canada-China relationship today, especially efforts to secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who continue to languish in Chinese prisons.”

I understand the outrage behind Burney’s comments and indeed the outrage felt by most Canadians over the unfair detention of our fellow Canadians in China. Outrage, however, is not a strategy for securing their release. Rather than using the two Michaels as a kind of loyalty test for my speech, I wish he had employed his considerable diplomatic experience to offer real solutions for their speedy return to Canada.

Burney is wrong about “growing anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada” being directed only at “the dismal track record of the Chinese communist government, not its citizens, and certainly not the thousands of Chinese-Canadian citizens who have flourished under the benefits of Canada’s open society.”

He clearly has not been paying attention to the wave of anti-Asian hate in this country, which does not discriminate between Chinese Canadians who are sympathetic to Beijing and those who are against the Chinese Communist Party. It does not even discriminate among Canadians who look vaguely Asian.

It is not racist to be critical of China. But anti-China sentiment crosses over into anti-Chinese discrimination when it stigmatizes individuals because of their names and national origins, for the views they hold, and the groups they associate with.

As I said in my speech: “There is a worrying trend in this country where discussions about China and Canada-China relations are framed in Manichean terms, and where Canadians with connections to China are received with discomfort, suspicion, or outright hostility.”

It is difficult enough to manage relations with China in the current context of intense geostrategic competition with the United States; misinformation, prejudice, and binary thinking in Canada will only make it more so.

Sen. Yuen Pau Woo is an immigrant from Singapore and was appointed to the Upper House in November 2016. His speech can be found here.

Published in the National Post