Vancouver (Toronto Star) – Anxiety about Beijing’s influence in Canada is on the rise nationwide, as pressure ramps up for the federal government to decide whether to ban Huawei Technologies from the country’s development of 5G infrastructure.
Only 29 per cent of Canadians view China favourably, down from 36 per cent two years ago, according to the latest poll from researchers at The University of British Columbia and the University of Ottawa.
Half of Canadians think it would be a mistake to allow Huawei to be a major player in Canada’s next-generation mobile internet system, while one in four would be fine with it, the survey results suggest.
The Chinese tech giant is the world’s largest producer of network equipment for telecom and internet companies. Over the past year, the United States has ramped up efforts to rally its allies to ban Huawei on grounds of security risks, citing the company’s close ties with the Chinese government.
Cybersecurity is a worry among Canadians, too, with 55 per cent of respondents listing cyberattacks and espionage as specific concerns regarding Beijing’s intentions, compared to only four per cent identifying those concerns when the survey was first conducted in 2017.
But the public is divided on whether Ottawa should follow Washington’s lead in completely banning Huawei. Thirty-six per cent supported a full ban while 41 per cent disagreed.
Canadians’ feelings toward China are stronger in the context of greater awareness of Chinese government human rights abuses against Muslims in Xinjiang and ongoing concern about the detentions of Canadians in China, according to one of the researchers.
“I think it’s clear that when it comes to attitudes about the Chinese government and human rights in China, Canadians feel very cold,” said UBC professor Paul Evans, who was part of the team that administered the survey released Friday.
“What surprised us is that the dislike of China is not translating into trust for the U.S government. Canadians know they are caught in the middle and they don’t want to choose one way or another,” Evans told Star Vancouver.
Canadians are interested in a new approach to China that addresses human rights, security and political concerns. However, many do not want to sacrifice economic ties with the Asian power, the survey showed.
Most Canadians believe expanded economic interaction with China will contribute to national prosperity and more than 60 per cent of survey respondents would even support negotiation of a bilateral free trade agreement.
This means that Ottawa is likely conflicted about the best ways forward to strike a balance between co-operating with and standing up to Beijing, Evans said.
Meanwhile, Canadian companies like Telus and Bell, which have already collaborated closely with Huawei, are among the stakeholders waiting to get clarity from the government.
Rogers Communications, Canada’s third largest telecommunications company, has announced it will use 5G equipment from Telefonaktiebolaget LM Ericsson. This could potentially give Rogers an advantage if their competitors are forced to remove Huawei technology.
After Vancouver police arrested Meng last December on an extradition request by the United States, China arrested Canadians Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, and continues to detain them on vague charges related to national security. Meng is out on bail in Vancouver but remains under partial house arrest.
The Chinese government also toughened the sentence of a Canadian held on drug charges — changing a 15-year prison sentence to the death sentence — and blocked Canadian canola exports to China.
The Chinese government on Tuesday removed a months-long ban on Canadian pork and beef products that hit farmers hard when it arrived in the midst of a broader diplomatic feud between the two countries.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau applauded the trade development, calling it “good news” for Canadian producers.
Former Canadian Public Safety minister Ralph Goodale had said in July that Canada needs more information from the United States about the nature of the potential security threat the U.S. believes Huawei poses before making a decision.
Goodale lost his seat in the House of Commons in the federal election and new cabinet ministers have not yet been appointed. The Star Vancouver asked the ministry Tuesday when the public should expect a decision on Huawei and did not receive a response before publication.
The online survey of 1,503 adult Canadians was conducted between Sept. 26 and Oct. 3 with a reported margin of error of plus-or-minus three percentage points.
Commenting on the results, Brett Byers of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute think tank said Canadians are right to be worried following the arrest of Meng and Beijing’s retaliatory actions.
“This is all the more reason for Canada to take a less idealistic view toward China and to see the regime for what it is. China itself has, through its own actions, disabused us of the notion that (they) consider Canada an equal partner,” said the communications manager, speaking on behalf of the institute.
“We must remain open as a partner in those instances in which China adheres to international rules and norms, but we must no longer passively accept the coercive belligerent behaviour of Beijing against us, our allies and the international system,” Byers added.
To mitigate economic consequences, the institute recommends that Canada avoid a free trade agreement with China and instead seek to diversify trade with more like-minded countries.
Ottawa can also push back against economic coercion by strengthening insurance programs to help Canadian companies mitigate the risks of losing business in the vast Chinese market, Byers said.
With files from Melanie Green and The Canadian Press