Trudeau can't avoid the ethical quandary posed by China's actions. But somehow he thinks he can

Terry Glavin

12 August 2020

It isn’t a particularly straightforward example of what ethicists and moral philosophers have come to call the Trolley Problem, but when it comes to making sense of the Trudeau government’s failures in responding to Beijing’s abduction and imprisonment of the Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and in responding to Beijing’s rampages through what remains of the “rules-based international order,” it is usefully instructive.

The simplest and most familiar iteration of the Trolley problem goes something like this.

A runaway trolley is barrelling towards a half-dozen people tied to the rail tracks. You’re got your hands on the lever of a switch. If you don’t pull it, the people die. But if you pull the switch, the trolley will be shunted off on another line of tracks, killing a person standing on the side tracks.

In this admittedly imperfect application of the thought experiment, the person you’re going to kill by pulling the switch is both Kovrig and Spavor, who were abducted by Chinese state security agents in December, 2018, following Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of Huawei, Xi Jinping’s “national champion” telecom giant, on a United States Justice Department extradition request. Meng has been biding her time in one of the mansions her family owns in Vancouver’s posh Shaughnessy neighbourhood, while her lawyers strain every codicil of Canadian law in her efforts to evade the charges she faces in the U.S.

The half-dozen people who will be killed if you don’t pull the switch comprise not only the innumerable pro-democracy Hongkongers now awaiting arrest and life imprisonment under Beijing’s sudden and brutal putsch in that formerly semi-autonomous city. The half-dozen also comprise Canada’s capacity to make any use of itself on behalf of the million or more Muslims of Xinjiang who are being subjected to mass internment and conscription to slave labour on a scale unmatched by anything since the Nazis’ persecutions of Germany’s Jews immediately prior to the Second Word War. And these are just the more immediate examples of what those half-dozen people represent.

The case of Kovrig and Spavor as a Trolley Problem dilemma came up in a particularly unseemly way on Tuesday, during a meeting of the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Canada-China Relations. What was unseemly about it was the way Liberal MP Peter Fragiskatos insinuated that Alex Neve, presenting Amnesty International’s case for a sort of Canadian rescue operation for Hong Kong’s imperilled democrats, was being flippant about the implications of such actions for Canada’s efforts to finagle the release of Kovrig and Spavor.

That Canada’s efforts on behalf of Kovrig and Spavor have been pathetic, profoundly embarrassing, disastrous and a catastrophic failure didn’t come up in testimony, but never mind. Among the measures Amnesty International proposed to the committee, and which were also proposed by representatives of Alliance Canada-HK, Canada – Hong Kong Link and Human Rights Watch: Canada should quickly clear a path to Canada for Hong Kong’s profoundly and immediately at-risk democracy activists, and utilize the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act to sanction and freeze the assets of Hong Kong’s most egregious human rights abusers, including Beijing’s key puppet, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

The Liberals’ Fragiskatos took particular aim at Neve. “If Canada was to take dramatic action along those lines, what is the prospect for those two individuals?” he asked. “Is it reasonable to suggest and assume that it would dramatically diminish the prospect of the release of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor?”

An interesting and rather telling question, which Neve attempted to answer by noting that Canadians should join with their allies in the world’s liberal democracies to curb and contain Beijing’s outrages. But Fragistakos had his own answer: “If the government of Canada was to move ahead in that direction, I wonder about the consequences for Canadians in China, namely the two Michaels.”

And there it is, the perfect summation of the Trudeau government’s catatonic uselessness in facing the existential threat that Xi Jinping’s China poses to the entire architecture of the “rules-based international order” that has guaranteed Canadian peace and security for much of the past 75 years or so. We stand there and wonder about things.

To merely notice this state of affairs is not at all to deny the profound ethical dilemma Canada should have understood it was being forced to confront the moment the two Michaels were abducted, 610 days before Tuesday’s committee hearings. The point here is, rather, to recognize that what Canada is facing is an ethical dilemma the Trudeau government has clearly not properly comprehended.

It’s the sort of ethical question you have to face up to and deal with, and get on with it. You can’t just stand there wondering, or hoping it will go away, or whining about how complicated things are and whimpering that the White House isn’t coming to our rescue, as if the dumpkoff in the Oval Office can magically instruct the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York to drop all 13 charges Meng is facing. The charges include bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy, arising from an investigation into Huawei’s purported efforts to evade U.S. sanctions in its dealings with the Khomeinist police state in Tehran, going back to the early days of the Obama administration.

This is the same problem we’ve seen with the WE Charity scandal, and the SNC-Lavalin debacle, going back all the way to Trudeau’s inability to comprehend that he had committed any lapse in judgment even after he’d been found to have violated sections 5, 11, 12 and 21 of the Conflict of Interest Act three years ago when he took that lovely holiday with the Aga Khan on his private island. The former parliamentary ethics watchdog Mary Dawson wasn’t kidding last month when she pointed out that an attentiveness to the requirements of ethical conduct doesn’t exactly come naturally to Trudeau. “One doesn’t continue to do the same thing twice,” Dawson said. Or three times. “There seems to be a little bit of a blind spot or something there.”

So we haven’t pulled the trolley switch. And we haven’t made a deliberate decision to allow the trolley on its way. The Trudeau government is just standing there, either refusing to acknowledge its dilemma, or paralyzed in its inability to comprehend the ethical dimensions of Canada’s supine relationship with China. On one set of tracks is Kovrig and Spavor. On the other set of tracks are tens of thousands of Canadians now being hounded and intimidated and threatened by Beijing and its agents, in this country, owing to a law Beijing has unilaterally imposed not just on Hong Kong, but explicitly in application to anyone, of any citizenship, anywhere, as the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Canada-China Relations was reminded on Tuesday.

So Canada just stands there, now and again trotting out Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne to utter expressions of concern and dismay and displeasure at the state of things.

And that is exactly where Xi Jinping wants us.

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