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COMMENTARY: By sanctioning Michael Chong, China may have made a mistake

Click to play video: 'China announces sanctions on individuals, entities in Canada, U.S.' China announces sanctions on individuals, entities in Canada, U.S.
WATCH: (March 27, 2021) China handed down sanctions on Saturday against Canadian parliamentarians and two U.S. religious rights officials in response to sanctions imposed by both Canada and the U.S. over human rights concerns in Xinjiang. China's new measures target Conservative MP and Foreign Affairs critic Michael Chong and the Canadian Foreign Affairs and International Development Subcommittee on International Human Rights – Mar 27, 2021

Michael Chong has been an outspoken critic of the government of China for many years, absorbing a steady stream of counterattacks from the Chinese regime and its supporters in response.

As an opposition MP, he doesn’t make Canadian foreign policy, but he does have a platform to pressure Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Canada’s position on China.

That is why the Conservative MP was surprised when he heard about China’s latest effort to shut him up. By singling him out, China is giving the Conservative MP more profile to state his case.

“I got a text from someone who said to me that I had been sanctioned,” Chong told me, adding he also received a link to an official statement from the Chinese government.

The sanction means Chong is prohibited from travelling to China or doing business with Chinese citizens.

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“It has little impact on me,” he said.

“We’re in the middle of a pandemic and I had no plans to travel abroad for the foreseeable future. And I don’t do business with China.

“In practical terms, it’s not going to have any impact on my work or my ability to continue to speak up.”

Read more: Garneau slams China’s sanctions, says they are an ‘attack on transparency’

But Chong said he still has concerns about his relatives in China.

“I’m of Chinese descent,” he said, recalling that his late father fled the Chinese regime in the 1950s, immigrating to Vancouver from Hong Kong.

“I do have cousins and other relatives there,” he said, adding he has avoided contacting family overseas.

“I haven’t been in touch with them recently out of concern of linking them to me.”

Chong was singled out by China for his criticism of Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province.

He’s not alone. China also recently sanctioned politicians and government officials in the United States and the United Kingdom.

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But Chong notes the regime targeted government officials close to the Joe Biden administration in the United States, while in Canada they went after a member of the opposition.

“They are giving a pass to the Liberal cabinet, because the Liberal cabinet abstained from the Uyghur genocide vote,” he said.

He’s referring to the Feb. 22 House of Commons vote accusing China of committing genocide against more than one million Uyghurs.

The vote passed unanimously — including the support of backbench Liberal MPs — but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet conspicuously abstained from voting on the motion.

Read more: U.S. condemns Chinese sanctions on individuals, entities in North America

While Trudeau has criticized human rights violations in China, he has avoided the word “genocide,” which he called an “extremely loaded” term.

Chong has no such hesitation.

“Genocide is taking place in western China,” he said.

“They have been forcing millions of Uyghur Muslims into detention camps.”

China denies persecuting Uyghur Muslims and insists the “detention camps” are in fact “vocational educational training centres” designed to “combat terrorism.”

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But as the international pressure builds on China, pressure is also building on the Trudeau government to take a tougher stand.

Canada has directed some strong words at the Chinese regime, and recently joined the U.S. in sanctioning four Chinese officials suspected of persecuting Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

One Chinese diplomat responded by calling Trudeau a “running dog” of the United States, a term that conjured up old Maoist rhetoric of years past.

But Chong, the Conservative foreign affairs critic, said these are just low-stakes skirmishes and it’s time for Canada to turn up the heat.

“Anything less is an abdication of leadership,” he said.

Read more: Canada hits Chinese officials with sanctions over ‘gross’ human rights violations in Xinjiang

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Canada currently does billions of dollars in trade with China, and while Trudeau may be fearful of a trade war, Chong said targeted economic sanctions should be imposed.

While Canada has vowed to bar the import of goods made with forced labour, Canadians are still able to purchase made-in-China cotton products online that watchdogs say are likely produced by coerced labour in Xinjiang.

“There’s evidence that Uyghur Muslims are being used to coercively and forcibly pick cotton and produce tomatoes under slave-like conditions,” Chong said.

“We’re drawing attention to that fact and calling on the government to ban the import of tomatoes and cotton from China.”

Watch for this type of pressure to increase on Trudeau in the days ahead, with Chong leading the charge.

China’s sanctioning of the Conservative MP may only serve to raise his profile and strengthen his hand.

Mike Smyth is host of ‘The Mike Smyth Show’ on Global News Radio 980 CKNW in Vancouver and a commentator for Global News. You can reach him at mike@cknw.com and follow him on Twitter at @MikeSmythNews​.

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