This discussion paper reveals how CSIS and the Five Eyes manufactured a “China Threat” in 2018 that turned into a firestorm with the arrest of Meng Wanzhou at YVR that December. Fanned by anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic, then stoked by CSIS leaks and a hostile media sensationalizing accusations of ‘foreign interference’, the China threat has mutated to become Canada’s “China Panic” with far reaching implications. This paper examines the three stages in the making of this panic, and how a toxic mixture of Sinophobia and anti-communism has meant that the federal NDP, Conservatives and Bloc Québécois are preventing any resolution of the crisis. Now, as other countries stabilize relations with the People’s Republic of China, Canada is stuck – a diplomatic outlier unable to get its house in order. Meanwhile, CSIS is in the process of installing an unprecedented research surveillance system in Canadian universities, and Canadian Armed Forces are regularly skirmishing with PRC forces in East Asia. The situation has become critical, necessitating some difficult conversations to determine a path forward towards justice and peace.

Read the full report here.

Executive Summary

This report reveals how US intelligence agencies and CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) manufactured an inflated “China Threat” in 2018 that mutated over the next five years to become Canada’s “China Panic” with far reaching implications.

Providing the first detailed and fully referenced account of the creation and rise of the China Panic, the report dissects the recent past to reveal how the heads of the CIA, FBI, and other US intelligence agencies, appointed by Donald Trump, launched what the Wall Street Journal called an unprecedented campaign in early 2018 to portray China and the telecom giant Huawei as a major threat to the Five Eyes, composed of the US, Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand.

Attending Five Eyes’ meetings in London (UK) and in Halifax was CSIS director David Vigneault who uncritically accepted the US accusations, rushing to share them with Justin Trudeau in the spring and summer of 2018. Fully informed of US accusations, the Canadian government willingly accepted the US request to extradite Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou. The firestorm that erupted with the subsequent arrests of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig plunged Canada-China relations into a crisis from which they have yet to recover.

Exacerbated by anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020, then amplified by constant CSIS leaks and media accusations of ‘foreign interference’, the China threat has become Canada’s ‘China Panic’, a classic example of threat inflation with farreaching effects on diplomacy, university research, and defence policy. The findings highlight the need for a sober reassessment of Canada-China relations, particularly in light of revelations regarding the involvement of India in the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, exposés of Canada’s own spy operations in Asia, and recent US and Australian initiatives to stabilize relations with China.

The report is presented in three parts:

Part 1 acknowledges that criticism of China in itself is not racist, and that the People’s Republic of China has plenty of problems that can be and are used to foment dissension. It tracks how such issues have been amplified and distorted leading to an unrelenting crisis in Canada-China relations. As a result, Canada has become a diplomatic lame duck, unable to extract itself from the ‘China Panic’ while the US and Australia actively seek a rapprochement with China in an effort to stabilize relations. Highlighting the stages in the making of the China Panic over the past five years, it tracks the interactions of three distinct narratives – China as a techno-threat; China as a viral threat; and China as interferer. It then follows the paper trail back to 2018, when CSIS first imported the narrative from the Trump administration. The report suggests the intensity of the crisis in Canada is related to the position staked out by the federal NDP as a ‘cold warrior’ regarding China. This has led to an NDP/Conservative/Bloc Québécois alliance that has institutionalized the ‘China threat’ discourse and stymied any initiative to mitigate the crisis. It concludes by illustrating the complicated relationship between Sinophobia and anti-communism that is used to create a divisive narrative about ‘good Chinese’ and ‘bad Chinese’.

Part 2 focuses on the close collaboration that has arisen between Canada’s preeminent research universities (U15) and CSIS. The report explores how David Vigneault first approached the U15 as far back as 2018 with CIA/FBI claims that China was using “human enabled espionage” to steal research secrets developed in Canadian universities. The report points to the failure on the part of the U15 to subject CSIS claims to any form of scientific scrutiny with the result being the adoption of new research guidelines that have led to racial profiling in universities. The study explores the dynamics of, and resistance to, racial profiling in both the US and Canada. The government is now preparing to introduce vastly expanded research restrictions that 6 | The Five Eyes and Canada’s “China Panic” will mark the rise of a research surveillance system unprecedented in Canadian history. CSIS director David Vigneault claims that CSIS efforts with the “principals of the largest Canadian research universities,” have been so successful that it has come “to the point now it is them asking us, you know, how can we work together?” It outlines possible actions that might counteract the emerging surveillance systems threatening international research collaboration and academic freedom.

Part 3 focuses on recent deployment of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) to actively patrol around the Korean peninsula and in the South China Sea. The result has been regular skirmishes with PRC forces in the region. Examining the origins of these deployments arising from the Vancouver Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in early 2018, the paper tracks the escalation over the next five years and the resistance it engenders on the part of Indigenous peoples in the Pacific as well as from the PRC. Probing how CAF deployments enable the US military to justify its longstanding military domination of the area, the report suggests that recent CAF military deployments constitute an important shift in Canadian foreign policy that has taken place without any serious public consultation. Does this shift towards forward engagements with the US military in the Pacific signal the end to the search for an autonomous Canadian foreign policy? Increasing polarization will demand difficult conversations and critical decisions to avoid the calamities of war and environmental degradation that imperil the planet.

About the Author

John Price is a historian with a focus on Asia and the Pacific as well as Asian Canadian history. Emeritus professor at the University of Victoria, he is the author of Orienting Canada: Race, Empire and the Transpacific and, with Ningping Yu, A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung. As an anti-racist educator, he has worked extensively with racialized communities, co-authoring Challenging Racist British Columbia: 150 Years and Counting and 1923: Challenging Racisms Past and Present. He has written extensively for The Tyee, the Victoria Times Colonist, Georgia Straight, the Hill Times, Canadian Dimension, and He is a board member of Canada-China Focus and a member of the National Security Reference Group of the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT).

The National Security Reference Group (CAUT): The Canadian Association of University Teachers established this group in the spring of 2023 in light of growing concerns about racial profiling and restrictions to academic freedom arising from new national security guidelines being imposed by the government on researchers. Composed of representatives from universities across the country, the reference group monitors the impact of such guidelines and advises the Canadian Association of University Teachers on potential measures to counteract the effects of racial profiling and restrictions on academic freedom. Members of the group contributed to this discussion paper through their ongoing efforts and critical analysis, in providing specifical materials for the paper, and in providing feedback to initial drafts.

Report originally published on University of Victoria’s Centre for Asia-Pacific Initiatives.

Photo via Adam Scotti (PMO).

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