Civil Servants and China

    Commentary Article by Gordon Houlden

    By Gordon Houlden on March 2, 2018

    On February 21, 2018, Charles Burton published an Op-Ed in the National Post which reflected broad concerns that some Canadians have over the current government’s pursuit of closer relations with China. The Op-Ed could be seen as a normal part of the desirable, and even essential, national debate over the relations that Canada should maintain with China: Canadians should take part in deliberations over how Canada and China should interact in the 21st century, where China will, along with the United States, yield great power and great influence.

    However, there were troubling inferences in this Op-Ed, specifically the suggestion that former civil servants who have worked on China files during their careers are acting against the interests of Canada by providing advice to Canadian governments and companies. Likewise, it was implied that the same former civil servants may have been compromised during the time that they were still in office. These are serious charges, offered without names or any supporting evidence.

    During my own 32 years as a Canadian diplomat (22 of which were spent on China) I had the opportunity to meet all of the senior Canadian officials who worked in our China missions, or at Headquarters in Ottawa.  This is not a large group – perhaps 30-60 persons.  While diverse in our assessments of China, and with views that no doubt changed over time, I am not aware of a single individual that ever gave me cause to believe that they had given advice they did not believe was in the best interest of Canada.  The contribution of these individuals to the Government of Canada with respect to deciphering the intricacies of the rapidly changing circumstances within China was invaluable to the shaping of Canadian foreign policy.

    The senior officials who are still working on China lack a voice to respond when their reputations and loyalty are called into question.  But some of us can.

    There is an historical precedent for challenges to the loyalty of government officials working on China, but it is more of US than a Canadian precedent.  During the infamous campaign by US Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950’s, employing the Congressional Committee on “Un-American Activities” the careers of a great number of US State Department officers were ruined by unsubstantiated allegations that they were either “soft on communism” or actual agents of Communist states. The hounding out of office of loyal and patriotic Americans on trumped up charges of treason was a significant factor in the subsequent failures of US Asia policy: many of the best diplomats were sacked, while some of those remaining were so cowed that they were reluctant to provide advice for fear of personal or professional sanction.

    The rise of China as a Great Power will have profound implications for Canada, in both economic and strategic terms.  Responding to these opportunities and risks will continue to generate hot debate over the best course forward for Canada.  Our government officials, both those within Government and those who have retired, must feel free to comment on Canada-China relations without hesitation.  A significant flaw of the formulation of Chinese foreign policy is that Chinese civil servants, whether in government or retired, are fearful of expressing views that are not aligned with those of the Communist Party hierarchy.  Let us, in our free country, rather engage in open debate without impugning the character or motives of individuals. This debate should be conducted with respect and without slurs on the loyalty of Canadians who devoted their lives to serving their country.


    Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat, is Director of the China Institute of the University of Alberta, an independent Think Tank funded by an endowment from the Government of Alberta