Scroll to the top

Bonfire of the Sanities: How does China win?

David Johnston, Canada's special rapporteur on foreign interference, holds a press conference about his findings and recommendations in Ottawa, Ontario.

David Johnston, Canada's special rapporteur on foreign interference, holds a press conference about his findings and recommendations in Ottawa, Ontario.

REUTERS/Blair Gable

How Beijing wins is a question engulfing US and Canadian politics, with hysteria over spy balloons, election meddling, and Taiwan slouching toward a low-rent neo-McCarthyism. And it’s a fair question. China is spying on everyone (even their friend-with-oil-benefits Russia is busting them for some hypersonic snooping), stealing IP, beefing up their military, and, in the case of Canada, actively undermining democracy.

The wolf warriors are snarling, but these geopolitical noises are nothing new. The question is what to do about it.

In Canada, it’s becoming shambolic. PM Justin Trudeau has managed to turn the political trick of making a problem about someone else – in this case China – into an issue about himself. Self-inflicted wounds are one of Trudeau’s unique skills, but that shouldn’t stop a fair and frank assessment of the problem.

Should Canada’s intelligence agency have warned politicians earlier that they were being targeted by Chinese attacks? Yes. Should Trudeau have acted more transparently and quickly on this? Of course. Was it a mistake to appoint David Johnston to investigate everything? Sadly, yes. While Johnston has a lifetime of impeccable nonpartisan service (he was appointed as the governor general by Conservative PM Stephen Harper, for goodness sake), in the current climate where politics has been essentially criminalized as a calling, Johnston – a lawyer, intellectual, university dean – has been luridly dismissed by opposition leader Pierre Poilievre as a party lackey of the PM brought in to slap a coat of whitewash on China.

Johnston is baffled by the absurd and baseless allegations, but if his old-world naïveté resembles a man with a musket facing an army of modern culture warriors armed with rhetorical AR-15s, it’s as much Trudeau’s fault as his. In 2023, trust does not just have to be established – it has to be perceived to be established.

Trudeau, a political creator by birth, knows this all too well. Johnston’s anodyne, civic-minded associations with Trudeau and the Trudeau Foundation may have a genuine perception problem, but they don’t have a substantial ethical one. The fact that it’s impossible to distinguish between the two is one of the distinguishing characteristics of our free-for-all age. Johnston’s work so far may be perceived to be biased, but intel sources I’ve spoken with do say it’s accurate. That matters.

There is much to criticize about how the Canadian government handled the Chinese election futzing, but here’s the thing: It didn’t work. The last Canadian election, like the American one, was fair and free, and the results stand on their merit, despite all partisan squawking to the contrary. There is no substantial evidence to say otherwise.

Even the threat isn’t new, which may explain why the government looked so embarrassed when the first allegations were revealed. Didn’t we know all this already from the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians' sober and thorough report tabled in March 2020? It disappeared from public view because it was literally published the week the global pandemic was declared.

But the work of this nonpartisan group openly revealed that China was attacking Canada and gave many details on how China attacked the West. Quoting the Australian expert John Garnaut, it said: “In classical Chinese statecraft there are two tools for gaining and maintaining control over 'the mountains and the rivers': The first is wu (weapons, violence) and the second is wen (language, culture).” The report goes on: “The PRC utilizes its growing economic wealth to mobilize interference operations: "with deep coffers and the help of Western enablers, the Chinese Communist Party uses money, rather than Communist ideology, as a powerful source of influence, creating parasitic relationships of long-term dependence.”

So it was all there three years ago, with prudent redactions for society's purposes.

The fact that this is barely mentioned says everything about how politics has overtaken the principles of governing, and how the need for some secrecy around national security has been used as a negative proof point of some hidden conspiracy

So, we have known about China for years, and their efforts are not working. All good? Nope.

The Chinese are still winning because the real game is not just to disrupt elections – though they will still try. It’s to try to weaken the West internally. And are they ever getting a return on their investment ...

In Canada, the debate around China has evolved into allegations that the entire democratic system and those running it – like Johnston – are all corrupt. Don’t trust anyone. They are all out to get you!

In the US, it’s worse. Marco Rubio was on Fox this week reverting back to the Trumpian mean – declaring that Biden is mentally incompetent, America is a weak, desiccated country, and that its politics and the military are poisoned on all levels by woke culture. Ron DeSantis has based his entire Twitter-delayed presidential campaign on this same stuff. The West is broken, etc …

China is gleeful. The culture war cat is amongst the Western democracy pigeons, ripping out the feathers. China wins when debate turns into demagoguery, and democracies forget about reason, facts, and that rarely mentioned quality that lies at the heart of free societies: empathy.

When Tom Wolfe wrote “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1987, he was torching the culture of greed and narcissism that was, at the time, both supercharging and corroding America – and to a lesser extent – Canada. Those twin traits have hardly diminished in the 36 years since. Still, they now seem like almost quaint, Calvary soldiers in the new, AI-boosted culture assaults raging over the phantom menace called “woke culture” — that gaseously defined, almost Delillo-esque “White Noise” threat that is proving to be a most convenient foil for the aria of multi-partisan, paranoid complaint that passes today for politics.

But that’s a bread and circus sideshow. The real risks facing folks today – AI, China, Russia, climate change, and nuclear proliferation, to name a few – need more genuine, reasoned debate. Too bad reasoned debate is becoming a campaign relic. If Wolfe were writing today, his book might be called “The Bonfire of the Sanities.” In fact, that’s likely the entire Chinese strategy: Burn down reason and turn a paranoid, angry West on itself. When that bonfire burns, China wins.


Subscribe to GZERO's daily newsletter