Canada and China: You Need to Calm Down
The Washington Post ran a story about Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour film being released in China on December 31, 2023. In a world where Meimei, as her Chinese fanbase knows her, is perceived as a source of inspiration, Ottawa might consider two critical lines of her song “You Need To Calm Down”: the first is the titular line, “You need to calm down;” the second is “Say it in the street, that's a knock-out/ But you say it in a Tweet, that's a cop-out.”
The popularity of Taylor Swift in China underscores the continued importance of cultural and sports engagement to maintain friendship between Canadians and Chinese citizens. It also shows the increasing social diversity of Chinese people’s focus is widening while the political interests of President Xi Jinping’s government are narrowing.
There are several facts that Global Affairs Canada (GAC) understands internally but must stress to Parliament, the public, and Canadian media that are essential foundations for Ottawa to politically recalibrate its bilateral engagement within Beijing. Firstly, the Chinese economy is and will continue to be the second-largest global economy. This dictates that an informed pragmatic commercial engagement strategy is and will remain important to Canada’s economic security. Secondly, unless there is a massive shift in policy, President Xi is committed to making China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs a “diplomatic iron army.”
Ottawa can ignore these facts and act like an ostrich due to public opinion. The best approach is to proactively engage and find the right balance between pushing back on the Chinese government's exceptionalism and preserving a productive working rapport on important issues with that government. This is the same foreign policy approach that Canada has taken towards the United States post-World War II. Success in this regard will be critical to Canada’s national security.
The purpose of accepting these two facts as the foundation for evidence-based foreign policy is to create the basis for the political risk within Canada for engagement but also to secure or direct funding to Canadian initiatives outside of GAC’s purvey. A corollary to increased public diplomacy is that the public and the media must learn to accept that a return to traditional diplomacy at the Minister-to-Minister level does not confer total agreement.
This will require Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet to articulate to Canadians the value of meeting privately and publically with Chinese officials at all levels. It is also likely that for both countries’ representatives, the potential outcome on many agenda items will only be agreeing to disagree. The premise of high-level meetings with Chinese counterparts is to look for areas of potential cooperation and hash out areas of profound disagreement. Canada’s elected officials must also better frame their concerns within the legal text of the international treaties that China as a signatory in theory adheres to and point to global laws and regulations rather than fall behind the unproductive term Canadian values.
The formal part of Ottawa’s engagement with Beijing in 2024 must include visits by Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, International Trade Minister, Minister of Agriculture, and ideally Minister of Public Safety and Minister of Justice. This is no different than the approach that the Biden Administration started last year. It is also no different than the approach that Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese undertook in November 2023.
The goal of these meetings is to develop sufficient rapport to work with Beijing to obtain some tangible commitments on areas that are of importance to Canada’s own pragmatic needs but also underscore the benefits to Beijing of adhering to the global rule of law. Part of this undertaking must then be to work with President Xi’s government in an interactive way that allows for compromise when warranted but not necessarily compromise when not warranted.
To be a like-minded nation, the government of Canada must politely and constructively speak its mind in person. These fiery chats will ideally also contribute to Beijing’s leadership from becoming further isolated from a global perspective.
Sino-Canadian relations are currently strained. Ottawa’s concerns are driven by two immediate, but in historical terms non-existentialist, events: the carry forward that arbitrary detention has had on Canada’s fear of engagement and election interference. Both legitimate points can be addressed through proactive engagement. The path back to a working rapport for both parties in the current environment will initially be like talking to the hand but must begin, nonetheless.
The first concern can be addressed by reminding Beijing of its existing international commitments to global treaties as the first step to improving China’s justice system’s treatment of what was once called “foreign friends” when Deng Xiaoping started the Open Door. Canada should also lead a process to improve the consular and legal rights of international passport holders in China who are detained within a modern more nationalistic state security-driven environment. Beijing should support this as a corollary to its acute desire to restore global business confidence with its 24-point policy released last year: Opinions of the State Council on Further Optimizing the Foreign Investment Environment and Enhancing Attraction of Foreign Investment.
If this specter of arbitrary detention is not addressed, the national psyche prevalent within Canada soon risks becoming post-Two Michaels Stress Disorder. Beijing should improve its image with Canadians by approving more flights from Canada to China, accepting the long-term and short-term credentials of Canadian media that want to report there, and allowing Canadians to visit China without visas as has been the case with six other countries: France, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, and Malaysia. Passport holders of these countries can visit for up to 15 days without a visa. In a world of nuances, perhaps the Chinese Embassy can memorialize famed Canadian doctor and Chinese army supporter Norman Bethune on the anniversary of his death, November 12, this year. These goodwill gestures would also demonstrate a return by the relevant departments in Beijing to a relationship driven by economic prosperity ideally tied to environmental sustainability.
Election interference must be addressed through detailed discussions with Beijing that outline Canada’s objections and present the facts for Zhongnanhai to respond to. This matter must also be addressed through changes in laws, regulations, and practices around elections to constantly improve voter confidence. Ottawa’s ultimate defense of democracy must be to adopt an internal Kaizen approach to peace, order, and better government within Canada at all levels, especially federal. As a community of elected and unelected government leaders, Ottawa must reflect daily on its practices to avoid shifting to being an illiberal democracy.
Ideally, the current independent election interference inquiry led by Justice Hogue will offer steps to be undertaken within Canada. Ottawa must restore Canadian voters’ confidence in its swift adoption of the recommendations likely to be in that report when it is released in February or March.
As part of this process, Parliament must also review the impact of the loosened language requirements for citizenship that went into effect in October 2017. Logic suggests if you can vote but not get your political news in French or English, you will turn to informal and formal sources of media in your mother tongue. The diversity of languages spoken in Canada makes it difficult to monitor inaccuracies in non-mainstream media and social media. The current Liberal government has already lowered the age bracket for language requirements: as the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported, “the age range for language and knowledge requirements is reduced to 18 to 54 years old, from the previous requirement of 14 to 64.”
Mass communication and perception are important in a world that combines the worst nightmares of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell. The onus on Canada moving forward will be to directly engage with the people of China to counteract the professional negativity that is being fostered within China and globally by a limited but important number of state actors such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. This will require resources being given to the Department of Canadian Heritage and Canada fighting for reciprocity of access to film, television, publication, and culture at a bilateral level diplomatically.
When Avril Lavigne performed in Beijing in 2011, it appeared to be of very little importance to the Canadian Embassy at the time. In the current environment, it is unlikely that Canada’s friendship with the Chinese people would easily appeal through live performances in front of the Chinese people.
The importance of public diplomacy was the theme of a 2009 book, “Guerilla Diplomacy”, written by former Canadian diplomat Daryl Copeland. Its message was not lost on the US State Department, which highlighted 75 years of public diplomacy efforts in its annual report on public diplomacy. Ottawa needs to improve its game of cultural and sports diplomacy with the Chinese people. The FIFA World Cup being in North America in 2026 presents an opportunity in a sport that is important to President Xi and the Chinese people. Canada’s public diplomacy, as well as substantive diplomacy that comes from long trips and tough meetings at the bilateral level in Beijing, can not be avoided any longer. Failure to engage may result in both Ottawa and Beijing humming under their breath the lyrics of Taylor Swift's “You're Losing Me”: "You say, ‘I don't understand,’ and I say, ‘I know you don't.”
John Gruetzner is a Fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute. He is also a member of the US-Canada Commission on China led by the Canada Institute and the Kissinger Institute. He is an advocate for a civil society-led China Policy Center in Ottawa. He writes and speaks on China-related issues for universities, the private sector, and governments.
 This does not suggest that the Two Michaels should feel this way or support this rapprochement.
About the Author
The mission of the Wilson Center's Canada Institute is to raise the level of knowledge of Canada in the United States, particularly within the Washington, DC policy community. Research projects, initiatives, podcasts, and publications cover contemporary Canada, US-Canadian relations, North American political economy, and Canada's global role as it intersects with US national interests. Read more
Kissinger Institute on China and the United States
The Kissinger Institute works to ensure that China policy serves American long-term interests and is founded in understanding of historical and cultural factors in bilateral relations and in accurate assessment of the aspirations of China’s government and people. Read more