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OPINION: Countries meddling in the affairs of others is nothing new

In this edition of the Mercy Traveler, Philip Maher looks at foreign interference
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I am not surprised with the numerous stories which are now percolating about the People's Republic of China influencing elections. I watched as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) worked to influence Africa for as many years as I have been travelling there.

Thirty years ago, I would rarely bump into anyone speaking Mandarin. Furthermore, I never witnessed any Chinese government-funded enterprises in Africa. Perhaps they existed, but they were not obvious.

That changed as I bounced back and forth to Africa on humanitarian missions. At first, I saw a new highway in Ethiopia or a medical facility in West Africa built by the Chinese. Then, commuter trains and other infrastructures. In some cases, labour was brought in from China. This, on a continent with no shortage of human resources. For each project, the parts naturally came from mainland China thus guaranteeing future imports.

Countries were happy to build infrastructure at significantly less cost than the West could provide despite fewer safeguards on the environment or human rights. These arrangements built connections to China’s economy and could involve other trading agreements for resources like oil, minerals and even fishing rights off the African coast.

I began to see massive plots of land taken up by factories and the creation of numerous Chinese free-trade zones across the continent with large Chinese characters on the sides of buildings. As costs rise in China, it became cheaper to manufacture things like clothing, shoes and electronics where African governments are understandably happy to create jobs. Some of my friends began to study Mandarin. All this within about twenty years. As governments become more indebted to the Communist Party, they lean on countries to support other agenda’s like issues around recognizing, or not recognizing, Taiwan.

Many Western businesses set up shop in Africa, but the separation between industry and the Communist Party is opaque at best. Western enterprises are far (very far) from perfect, but they can be scrutinized by media or human right advocates. Who scrutinizes these companies when they and the media are all under the shadow of the Communist Party? They operate hand in hand as one entity.

This week, the U.S. vice-president is visiting Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia following in the footsteps of other high ranking U.S. officials over the past year, including Jill Biden. The current U.S. government has initiated a counteroffensive in light of both Chinese and Russian involvement in Africa.

Keeping track of the Canadian story now unfolding daily is harder than keeping up with spinning plates on the end of stick. We have rumours of election meddling, members of parliament leaving the party, Chinese balloons, Chinese police stations and TikTok being banned on government phones. Where is this going? Honestly, I don’t know.

One thing I do know is that these days we seem to use the word crisis for everything. We hear about a climate crisis, a healthcare crisis or even a mental health crisis. Nowhere have I heard the word crisis used around possible election meddling, the basis for our civilization!

I’m no political expert, especially on such a complicated topic so I’m trying to keep my conclusions based on things I’ve experienced or we already know.

First, we should remind ourselves that foreign countries influencing elections and governments is not new, nor is it unique to China or Russia. The West has tried to sway elections and governments for as long as international relations have existed. However, it seems the Chinese government has exercised this craft in a very different and sinister way and for a different purpose beyond economics, providing humanitarian assistance or fighting for human rights. When the meddling goes against what the people want, it becomes a problem. We need to hold all governments accountable when this happens, whether in China, Canada or the U.S.

There is nothing inappropriate about building factories on the African continent but, there is little distance between the government and these companies. Perhaps even more risky is when a country becomes so reliant on another state that they cannot function. We saw how hard it was to rely on other countries to get PPE and vaccines during the pandemic.

Finally, discrimination is a hard beast to manage. Any evils conducted against Canada or the West are being conducted by The Chinese Communist Party not by the vast majority of ethnic Chinese living in Canada who come from Hong Kong, the Philippines, Malaysia, Mainland China or elsewhere. We have seen periodic cases of abuse inflicted on citizens who support democracy. We must prevent discrimination against these Canadians who are friends to us all.

So, finally, NO I’m not surprised by what is going on today in Canada. It started in Africa.


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About the Author: Philip Maher

Philip Maher is a consultant and photojournalist. He has managed international communication projects for more than 20 years, taking him to more than 80 countries. His twitter is @mercytraveller.
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