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J. Michael Cole: Xi Jinping’s worldview is hardening

Commentary

If you believe the headlines, Beijing decided a few months ago to “tone down” its previously assertive foreign policy tone—a tone that, in recent years, had earned it the sobriquet “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy.

Apprehending further escalation between the U.S. and China, if not a new Cold War, a number of China hands are now counselling that the West should welcome this extended hand and believe that, this time, Beijing means what it says and is now committed to acting as a responsible stakeholder.

The problem is that we’ve seen all this before. Only by having an ahistorical view of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), or misconceptions about the nature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), can one believe that the Chinese regime under the firm guidance of Xi Jinping, an autocrat’s autocrat if ever there was one, is now ready to play by the established rules of international relations.

At best, Beijing’s new tone is merely tactical, taken out of necessity amid a domestic COVID crisis and a global reputation that is at a particularly low point. Even the most hardline party official in Beijing must acknowledge that much of the world has turned against the would-be superpower.

Indeed, in a meeting with President Joe Biden last year, Xi signalled his intention to repair the deteriorating relationship, paving the way for a ties-mending meeting in Beijing between the Chinese leader and the U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, which was subsequently cancelled due to the spy balloon incident. And yes, a number (albeit not all) of China’s “Wolf Warrior” ambassadors have toned down their rhetoric on social media, and an infamous spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry has been dispatched to the party’s organizational Siberia.

But this ostensible change of heart is merely cosmetic, not only part of the pendulum of the PRC’s external behaviour but, more importantly, quite compatible with a simultaneous hardening of the CCP’s worldview.

The facts speak for themselves. While Beijing says it seeks to improve relations with the West, reports are emerging about a Chinese interference network that sought to meddle in the last two Canadian elections. It continues to threaten its democratic neighbour, Taiwan, with a steady regimen of provocative military activity. It provides material assistance to Russia in its bloody invasion of Ukraine, while failing to provide information to global health authorities about its current COVID surge. Indeed, China holds the international community hostage on matters such as global warming, by making its cooperation contingent on the rest of the world giving in to some of its “core interests,” which involve the genocidal treatment of an ethnic minority, the erosion of freedoms in Hong Kong, and the annexation of a peaceful democracy next door.

It is not impossible, in fact, that hardliners in Beijing deliberately used the spy balloon that overflew the continental United States last week to make it practically inevitable that Blinken’s visit to China, and therefore the possibility of de-escalation, would be torpedoed.

Xi, furthermore, has unwavering ambitions and, as Biden once put it, does not have a democratic bone in his body. Highly ideological, arguably megalomaniac, and impatient with any advice that does not reflect his ideology, the president for life has, in the wake of last fall’s Party Congress, surrounded himself with sycophants. This further makes a mockery of the notion that Beijing has somehow seen the light and decided to mend its ways.

What this means, furthermore, is that playing nice to Beijing is a fool’s errand. By engaging with the PRC as if we are dealing with a normal party-state, there is little if any chance that we are empowering more liberal voices within the CCP that, at some point, could lead the party in a more benign direction. Those voices have been extinguished, cowed into silence, or sent to jail.

Simply put, if we naively engage Beijing with the expectation that we are dealing with a regime that is genuinely committed to better behaviour, all we’ll end up doing is strengthening the Party and creating more openings for it to continue eroding the world order.

That isn’t to say that we should leave the PRC out in the cold—we can’t—but we should be clear-eyed about what it’s up to and what its intentions are, and cognizant that the nicer tone is nothing more than a tactical move.

Richard Stursberg: The sad truth is that Pierre Poilievre may be right about the CBC

Commentary

Pierre Poilievere wants to defund the CBC. Not all of it, just English TV and the English news network. He proposes to keep the French services and English radio intact. In his fundraising ads, he says “Send me $20 and I will save you a billion”. His math is poor, but his attack is sophisticated. 

The possible savings are not even close to a billion. The news network finances itself from cable fees and advertising. There are no government dollars involved. As for the billion dollars of public subsidy (1.25 actually), it is traditionally split 60/40 English/French and 80/20 TV/ radio, so there is only 750 million for English services, of which 20 percent goes to radio. Thus, there are only 600 million dollars spent on English TV, not the billion Poilievre claims. 

Although not good at math, Poilievre’s approach is clever. Unlike his predecessors, he does not attack CBC/Radio-Canada as a whole, just English TV. Why? Because it’s the weakest of all the services. Radio-Canada’s TV service, Ici Tele, has a 25 percent prime-time share, Ici Radio 17 percent, English radio 17 percent, and English TV 5 percent. English TV’s audiences have been shrinking for more than a decade. It is now a service with almost no viewers and what it has skews very old. 

As audiences collapse, so does public support for the service. This is not particularly surprising. Why would Canadians care about or want to protect English TV when it no longer matters in their lives? Why spend their political capital on a service that is irrelevant to them? 

The problems of English TV are not new. At the beginning of this century, its share of prime time had been in decline for 30 years. In 2004, its share had fallen to the lowest level ever. There was considerable despair about whether it could be revived. 

Beginning in 2005, a new strategy was put in place based on making Canadian shows that Canadians wanted to watch. This was considered a radical and likely impossible undertaking. There were also fears that CBC would be “dumbed down”. The strategy was inspired by the BBC’s famous assertion: “Audiences are everything to us”. (Full disclosure: I was the head of English TV at the time.)

The strategy had two components. First, it was necessary to get rid of the shows that nobody was watching. The performing arts block (essentially ballet on TV) was eliminated; the coverage of increasingly obscure arts awards was ended (everything from the Urban Music Awards to the Gillers); and the historical documentaries masquerading as drama (endless Canadian political figures from the deep past) were dumped. The rule was simple: if nobody is watching a show, it must go. 

Second, new shows were commissioned that respected the TV conventions that English Canadians preferred. A long parade of hits began: Little Mosque on the Prairie, Heartland (now into season 16 and still on the network), Dragon’s Den (now in its 17th. season), Battle of the Blades (that would garner an incredible 3 million viewers), The Rick Mercer Report, on and on. The new shows dramatically lifted English TV’s audiences. Its all-Canadian prime-time lineup made it the number two network in the country behind only CTV’s largely all-American schedule. 

As the audiences improved, Canadians’ impression of English TV improved. In survey after survey, Canadians said that they valued it more, that it was more distinct, and that it was essential to them personally. Interestingly, morale within the corporation also improved. In 2006, only 41 percent had been optimistic about the future of the CBC; by 2010, the number had climbed to 74 percent. 

The falling audiences of English TV have no doubt dramatically eroded Canadians’ confidence in the network. Unfortunately, the CBC does not report Canadians’ attitudes to the different services, service by service. Rather it rolls up Canadians’ attitudes across all services, including the very popular French ones and English radio. It is impossible to imagine, however, that Canadians’ support for English TV has not vanished as its audiences have disappeared. 

Pierre Poilievre’s polling doubtless shows this. That is why his focus is on the part of the CBC that is weakest and most vulnerable. He has no fundraising ads in Quebec, urging French Canadians to give him money to defund Radio-Canada. 

The sad truth is that Pierre Poilievre may be right. Perhaps it’s time to eliminate English TV. What is the point in maintaining all of its infrastructure, personnel, and unwatched shows if nobody cares? Perhaps it’s time to try something new. If the CBC were a normal corporation with multiple product lines, where one was failing and the others were strong, that is exactly what would be done. 

The alternative to Poilievre’s suggestion would be to take the $600 million spent on English TV and not return it to the public purse. Instead, it could be spent on creating a digital on-demand service, featuring the best Canadian documentaries, dramas, kids’ shows, and comedies. Like Netflix or Disney Plus, the shows would be streamed and available to Canadians whenever they wanted to watch them. 

It’s worth noting that the $600 million would trigger much more than $600 million worth of production. The new service would presumably have access to the Canadian production subsidies (the tax credits, the Canadian Media Fund, and the coproduction treaties), which would easily raise the amount of new money entering the system to more than a billion dollars. To put this amount in perspective, the total expenditure on Canadian entertainment shows in 2021 was not quite $570 million.

This would be a colossal shot in the arm for Canadian TV production, at a time when the money committed by the private sector to Canadian entertainment shows has been falling year over year for many years. It would also constitute a new beginning for English television, one which might not only save the network from irrelevance but also position it to make a major, future contribution to Canadian culture.