Hewitt, America in the Asian Century

Written by Steve Hewitt.

They make for gripping headlines straight out of the world of John Le Carré: two hundred businesses operating in Canada that are secretly under the control of the Chinese government;  a thousand Chinese intelligence agents based in Canada in order to carry out economic espionage, monitor Chinese dissidents and groups such as the Falun Gong, and recruit informants and “agents of influence”; two cabinet ministers in provincial governments and municipal politicians across Canada who are “under at least the general influence of a foreign government.” These are real stories, however, that have emerged in Canada over the last 20 years. All of them pertain to Canada’s relationship with China in the recent past and have relevance to the present and future relationship between the two countries.

This paper will explore the meaning of these headlines by contextualising them in the wider history of the Cold War but more importantly by examining the motivations behind them within the long history of Canadian anxieties around immigration and Diasporic communities combined with the rise of an increasingly post-national Canada with its concomitant dual citizens.

Ultimately, the paper will argue that the Cold War continues in a post-Cold War world and that the factors that have led to China becoming a now dominant Canadian security concern outside of the threat of terrorism are only going to continue unless a rethinking of binary categories commences. What the paper will not do is assess the extent of Chinese espionage and infiltration within Canada because that would require access to the records of Chinese intelligence agencies. There does clearly appear to be a consistent theme of exaggeration across the claims but that does not deny that there has been and continues to be Chinese espionage and other influence within Canada. My focus is on how Canadian officials understand this threat and what factors affect its construction.

So what is going on here? There is no question that China like other major nations conducts espionage including against Canada. But this situation is more complex than has been fully acknowledged. Some of this complexity emanates from what in a broad sense can be called globalisation including increased economic integration.  Equally important in this globalised context is the development of a multicultural, diverse, mass immigration post-national society of the type that Canada has become through the arrival of several hundred thousand immigrants per year. The notion of dual loyalty among many immigrants, particularly those with dual citizenship, although at times deployed as a slur, also reflects the complexity of identity in the 21st century as people increasingly view themselves through multiple identities instead of a single fixed one. This has considerable implications for domestic intelligence agencies now and in the future.

First, there is the matter of espionage carried out by dual nationals. There have been a number of high profile cases in the United States of Chinese-Americans accused of economic espionage on behalf of the Chinese government. Both convictions and acquittals have followed, demonstrating the potential intricacies involved in such cases. Two different American studies found in the post-Cold War period dual loyalties as a growing motivation for those involved in espionage. This is in a country where more than 25% of workers involved in science and technology were born outside of the United States. Overall, the foreign born population of the United States is about 13%. These factors are even more prevalent in Canada where the foreign born population is 20% and the immigration system is constructed around prioritising high-skilled immigrants.

Despite the complexities around it, espionage remains easier to determine than the most obtuse category of “agent of influence” that has been alleged of some Chinese-Canadians. The concept most resembles the Cold War construct of subversion and is highly problematic in an era of multicultural and diverse societies based on high levels of immigration in which many newcomers have multiple loyalties. More reflection is required, including by intelligence agencies, on the implications of these increasingly post-national nation states for constructs that date from the Cold War. The reality of Canada and the United States in the 21st century might require rethinking the entire notion of an “agent of influence.” The alternative is the increasing suspicion and criminalisation of immigrants, be they from China or elsewhere.

Steve Hewitt is Senior Lecturer in the Department of History and the American and Canadian Studies Centre at the University of Birmingham. He has written extensively on issues related to security and intelligence in the past and present. Currently, he is working on a history of terrorism and counter-terrorism in Canada. He tweets @SteveHewittUK. This article forms part of the IAPS Dialogue series on America in the ‘Asian Century’, a symposium joint-funded by the Department of American & Canadian Studies, and the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham. Image Credit:  CC/ Wikimedia Commons.

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