Canada is failing to combat the spread of Chinese influence that is “alive and well” throughout the country, one prominent student leader says.
And she argues the presence of politicians like former Ontario trade minister Michael Chan as a headliner at a rally last week to mobilize the Chinese diaspora against pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong is just another sign of how far Beijing’s influence has spread.
“I’m definitely concerned,” said Chemi Lhamo, president of the student union at the University of Toronto’s Scarborough campus, and a Canadian citizen of Tibetan heritage, in an interview with The West Block‘s Mercedes Stephenson.
“These are the folks that are actually implementing the propaganda and amplifying the propaganda that the Chinese state is trying to control.”
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Lhamo made headlines earlier this year when her election as student union president prompted a wave of abuse by Chinese trolls who mobilized online to threaten Lhamo’s position, her future — and even her life.
“Somehow the international Chinese community came to find out that I was running for the elections, but to be specific, it was more like a Tibetan running for the campaign. When they found out, they immediately released a petition online against me. In addition to that, they took it on social media and they started giving me comments in the thousands from rape threats to death threats — not only to me but my family members,” she said.
“There was a pattern in these comments. Everything was talking about Tibet and China.”
Those attacks came both from abroad and at home. In some cases, she says she was even told by attackers that they went to school right on her campus.
And Lhamo believes what she experienced is part of a broader pattern of Chinese influence spread throughout Canada.
“It’s alive and well, and it’s creeping on us in every corner.”
Lhamo cited the influence the Chinese government is able to extend through the Confucius Institute, a network of hundreds of centres around the world funded by the Chinese government and branded as educational programs that offer services like Mandarin lessons to students.
But critics argue they are in fact a propaganda arm for the Chinese state used as a means to mobilize pro-Beijing actors in their regions.
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Last week, the Australian government scrapped Confucius Institutes in that country amid growing fears of the extent of Chinese influence and cited concerns about potential interference and inappropriate influence in its review of the programs.
The U.S. Senate’s Homeland Security committee also released a scathing report earlier this year calling for the centres to be shut down.
In Canada, CSIS has already issued warnings about Chinese influence across all levels of government in this country and declassified intelligence reports pointed to the creation of the centres as part of China’s plans to exert soft power abroad.
But universities and public school systems have continued to sign agreements with the Confucius Institute amid a the backdrop of broader funding cuts for education and increasing demands for services that will prepare students to work in a world with growing Asian power.
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There continue to be 12 Confucius Institutes across the country, along with regional programming with public school boards, with more than 20,000 students.
China has repeatedly said the goal of the centres is simply to teach Mandarin and increase awareness about China.
The New Brunswick government tried and failed to axe the programs earlier this year over concerns the institute was blacklisting topics that countered the Chinese state’s opinions. The Toronto District School Board also cancelled plans for the programs several years ago.
Confucius Institutes and connected programming remain in public schools in Alberta, B.C, and other provinces, as well as numerous university campuses including Ottawa’s Carleton University, the University of Regina, the University of Saskatchewan, Toronto’s Seneca College and the University of Waterloo.
Lhamo says without a much stronger stance from the government, Chinese influence will continue to spread.
“There is so much more that we can do,” she said, suggesting attention should turn to students studying in Canada, many of whom she suggests are coming under intense pressure from the Chinese government back home to carry out activities abroad that advocate the state line.
“Chinese international students are one of the biggest cash cows for universities and academic institutions. It’s time that we take a stance and let them know their human rights record does not reflect international standards.”