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Mark Johnson: We must be cautious in our statements about meddling by China. Let the police go to work

Commentary

In recent weeks, Canadian political debate has been gripped by allegations of interference by the Chinese Communist Party in several ridings in our 2019 and 2021 federal elections.  

I ran as the Conservative candidate in 2021 in one of those ridings: Scarborough-Agincourt.

I never saw any interference during my campaign and no one has brought anything to my attention since it ended. I’m confident that our elections, mine included, were neutral, honest, and accurate. My opponent won fair and square.

Regrettably, the larger debate lacks a sense of proportion. The rhetoric is becoming overheated, potentially exaggerating the problem, misleading voters about the quality of our elections, and most disturbingly, sowing mistrust towards an ethnic group.  

Contrary to the prime minister’s claim, it’s not racist to investigate foreign meddling but we must be circumspect and cautious in our statements. To the extent there was any interference, we should let the police handle it.

In 2021, the Conservative Party offended large portions of the Chinese-Canadian community. From the start of my candidacy, my campaign team and I were aware of this challenge. Granted, there are some very serious issues with the government of China and President Xi’s leadership that must be confronted, but some Conservative MPs had been too strident in their language, came across as obsessively anti-China, and brushed the line of intolerance. Many Chinese Canadians were offended by this. 

Being informed and discerning citizens, they voted accordingly. We Conservatives can’t blame meddling by China for our losses.

Innocent Chinese Canadians can be collateral damage

We must also be aware that the constant drumbeat of anti-China accusations could arouse anti-Asian sentiment in Canada. About 1.8 million Canadians, five percent of the population, are of Chinese ancestry, whose original ethnic homeland generally speaking is China. No one needs to be reminded of their contribution to this country.

Anti-China rhetoric may be twisted by the unscrupulous and unhinged, or misinterpreted by many. When we create fears of an “enemy within”, that Canada is rife with Chinese spies in our universities, businesses, and governments, then we run the risk that innocent Canadians of Chinese descent fall under suspicion and become the victims of prejudice. The Chinese-Canadian community is rightly troubled by the recent rise of anti-Asian incidents. Alarmism on this issue only worsens the problem.

This does not mean that our law enforcement should be compromised by diaspora politics. But we must calibrate our words and intensity levels so as not to imperil a racial minority.

Local guys on a power trip?

Was the alleged influence campaign ordered by a high-level official in Beijing? Or was it the independent action of a low-level local official who wanted to be a big man by inserting himself into the process? 

Canadians may be surprised to learn that candidates for Parliament receive astonishingly little field support from their parties. You’re on your own. Volunteers, money, and resources are scarce on the ground. You need all the help you can get. A long time ago, into this vacuum stepped local organizers from ethnic groups who could mobilize their networks.

For decades now, party politics in our big cities have been the purview of ethnic organizers from many different communities. Riding-level campaigns of all parties are propelled this way.  

On the upside, new Canadians enter the political process, inject energy and diversity, and shake up the old order. On the downside, campaigns have become the clients of those who control lists of potential members and volunteers, almost exclusively drawn from ethnic communities. They are the mother’s milk to campaigns desperate for help. Candidates must navigate delicate foreign policy positions involving the mother countries, often between conflicting segments of the same diaspora.    

Bouncing from one campaign to another across the city, the list holders market themselves as movers and shakers who claim the power to deliver votes for your nomination, email addresses for your marketing, volunteers to hammer in signs, and donors to provide money. Stitch together enough lists and you win your party’s nomination.  

The alleged interference campaign by local Chinese officials bears all these hallmarks. Canada’s politicians shouldn’t feign surprise at this. It’s easy to see how a few wannabe players, list holders, and poll captains got carried away and crossed the line. Maybe there was a connection to the Chinese consulate or maybe not, but the current indignation reminds one of the police chief in Casablanca who ironically declares that he’s shocked that there’s gambling going on at Rick’s Cafe. 

Mitigating this problem requires parties to re-examine their nomination processes and timelines, membership requirements, list sharing, and field support operations. Candidates shouldn’t be left alone and desperate for help.

Let cooler heads prevail

We don’t need yet another time-consuming, expensive public inquiry. If CSIS has credible evidence of criminal activity then they should hand it over to the RCMP and let them deal with it. If these things happened and the evidence is solid, then why no diplomatic expulsions and no arrests? These questions must be answered by CSIS and the RCMP.

If agents of the Chinese Communist Party engaged in criminal activity with Liberal organizers, threatened community members, or pressured foreign students to support one party or the other, then our police and intelligence agencies should do their job and act decisively.

In the meantime, our leaders and officials should provide a calm, measured response, one that is effective, supports our honest elections, and more importantly, protects innocent Canadians.

Patrick Luciani: The tragic mind of Robert D. Kaplan

Commentary

Review of: The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power
Author: Robert D. Kaplan
Publisher: Yale University Press 2023

If anyone is qualified to talk about war and conflict, it’s Robert Kaplan and his forty years as a foreign correspondent. He is on everyone’s list of top policy thinkers and has written 20 books to back up his reputation. He has now added another, The Tragic Mind: Fear, Fate, and the Burden of Power, his most personal book.

The Tragic Mind is about deep regret by a keen observer of war and how he got the Iraq War wrong. After spending the 1980s covering the Greater Middle East and Eastern Europe, nothing was more terrifying than Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Kaplan described it as “one vast prison yard lit by high-wattage lamps,” with a level of tyranny even worse than Hafez al-Assad’s Syria and comparable to Nicolae Ceausescu’s Romania. Kaplan returned to Iraq in 2004, embedded with the U.S. Marines in their first battle of Fallujah. He believed that overthrowing Saddam and installing a democratically elected government was the right thing to do. His position was transformed when he witnessed the brutality and anarchy that led to countless innocent deaths causing him to suffer a clinical depression that lasted for years.

Kaplan describes himself as a political realist, a position that mostly says to leave well enough alone. This time that instinct and objectivity deserted him. Kaplan quotes the medieval Persian philosopher Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, saying that one year of anarchy is worse than a hundred years of tyranny.

How could Kaplan have gotten it so wrong? He admits he lost perspective as an independent observer. He was affected by “group think” where most of Washington favoured the war, including a majority in the Senate and House of Representatives. War was in the air, and Kaplan got swept away without considering the consequences of toppling Iraq’s leader. He felt the burden of his writing that may have influenced political leaders. Kaplan knows the heavy moral responsibilities of a writer. His 1993 book Balkan Ghost so “depressed the president [Clinton] that it led to inaction on his part.” Kaplan supported military action to save lives in Bosnia, but his book had the opposite effect. 

For solace and insight, Kaplan turns to the ancient Greeks and Shakespeare. Sophocles’ plays, such as Oedipus Rex and Antigone, teach that predestination can’t be avoided or that duties and loyalties to the state or religion are often in conflict. The ancients teach that the wise are full of fear and must think tragically to avoid even greater disaster—a lesson Vladimir Putin is quickly learning after he invaded Ukraine. Putin’s hubris can be ranked with the outrageous arrogance of the Persian king Xerxes when a smaller motivated Athenian force destroyed his mighty army.

Removing Saddam Hussein seemed an apparent good in ridding the world of a murderous tyrant, but a greater evil followed. We worry about the terrible things that don’t happen but seldom about the awful things that do occur. Great statesmen have this innate sense of tragedy. They imagine the unimaginable. 

Reflecting on those who have this quality, Kaplan mentions former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger, James Baker, and George Shultz. He also includes two presidents, General Dwight D. Eisenhower and George H. W. Bush, who could see beyond current conflicts and steady America’s military hand in dangerous times. In the case of Eisenhower, he held back after the Soviet Union aggressively moved against Hungary in 1956 and Bush Sr. when he limited the first Gulf War to expel Iraq’s army from Kuwait. In a speech in Kyiv in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Bush Sr. warned of the dangers of suicidal nationalism. It was received as a retreat undermining the Ukrainian struggle for independence. But he saw the risks of a collapsing Soviet Empire that eventually produced Vladimir Putin. 

It’s no accident that both Eisenhower and Bush Sr. were military men who experienced the death and destruction of war. It wasn’t their understanding of international affairs or the past but their capacity to know that further action could lead to disaster. I’ll also add John F. Kennedy to this list. He had the sense to reject the unanimous advice of his joint chiefs of staff and national security advisor, who recommended an all-out assault during the Cuban Missile Crisis. This event still lingers in the Russian mind as a moment of humiliation that must be avenged, a theme that echoes throughout Greek tragedy. 

Does learning the lessons of history prevent mistakes that lead to tragedy? Kaplan thinks not. History is an imperfect guide to understanding the future or the optimistic view that the “arc of history” bends toward justice. In his view, history rarely repeats and seldom rhymes. And the study of international affairs is a poor social science in understanding the behaviour of nations. Kaplan reminds us that every villain isn’t Adolf Hitler, and not all years are 1939. 

If we can’t look to history as a guide, we might find some understanding in the ancients that teach about chance, predestination, and the limits of imagination. We might also learn that the potential for tragedy is always present. Kaplan hopes we can stave off disaster by reflecting on the literary classics and the good fortune of having wise leaders. It’s not much, but it’s all we have in a dangerous world.