The themes employed by Trudeau’s fans are time-honoured and brightly polished. They’re also questionable at best, downright nonsense at worst.
One theme is that, as the world’s second largest economy, China is an indispensable trading and business partner for Canada.
Another is that, because of Canada’s historic friendship with the Communist Party regime, we have influence in Beijing and are well placed to promote political, judicial and social reform in China.
It is always best, of course, to have constructive relations with foreign governments; it certainly beats the alternative. But under successive Canadian governments — and especially under the Liberals — the attention and deference Ottawa lavishes on China has far outweighed the benefits Canada receives in turn.
Look closely at the Canada-China economic relationship. In 1993, the year before the newly-elected Prime Minister Jean Chrétien led the first of his ‘Team Canada’ trade missions to China, two-way commerce was minuscule. Canada sold China $1.68 billion worth of goods — mostly grains — and bought $3.1 billion worth of largely third-rate manufactured goods.
Since then, the trade relationship has exploded; last year it was worth nearly $86 billion. But Canadian exports — still largely agricultural products and natural resources — made up only just over $20 billion of that trade. Meanwhile, Canadians last year bought nearly $66 billion worth of Chinese goods, most of them manufactured products that used to be made here or in the United States.
Boosters say that an Ottawa-Beijing free trade agreement will open the Chinese market to Canadian entrepreneurs and cut the Canadian deficit. Horsefeathers. The Beijing regime is very, very good at letting into its market only the goods and services it wants, or can control.
Even Canada’s agricultural exports to China are not immune to Beijing’s dexterity with non-tariff barriers. The current canola seed dispute is evidence of that. Beijing is on the point of shutting out Canada’s annual export of $2 billion worth of canola seeds, claiming there is too much extraneous plant material in the shipments.
The whole incident has the smell of Beijing jerking Canada’s leash ahead of free trade talks.
Incidents like this make it hard to argue that Beijing holds Canada in especially high regard because of historic links. Canadian boosters usually credit two people for what they claim is China’s benevolent view of Canada. One is Norman Bethune, the alcoholic, priapic surgeon who acted as a doctor for the Communists’ Eighth Route Army in the war against invading Japanese in the 1930s, and who died of blood poisoning. Bethune is presented to Chinese schoolchildren as a prime example of international support for the Communist regime.
The other is Pierre Trudeau, who as prime minister in 1971 opened diplomatic relations with Beijing and set the ball rolling for U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China the following year.
Unlike some of today’s cheerleaders, Pierre Trudeau was not mesmerized by China. As the price of establishing diplomatic relations, Beijing tried to bully him into accepting China’s claim to Taiwan. Trudeau refused, insisting that Canada would only “note” Beijing’s claim.
Nixon’s negotiator, Henry Kissinger, was more easily bamboozled by the crafty Chinese Premier Chou Enlai. Kissinger agreed to “acknowledge” Beijing’s claim to Taiwan. Successive Beijing governments translate “acknowledge” as “accept” — language which has and will continue to cause problems.
Neither Trudeau nor Bethune had as much influence with the hard-nosed Communist Party leadership as Canadian diplomats and politicians like to think. And anyone still nursing this illusion should have had it dashed at the beginning of June when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out at iPolitics reporter Amanda Connolly for having the temerity to ask a question about Beijing’s human rights record.
It was a perfectly appropriate question because since Xi Jinping became president and party leader four years ago, he has overseen a campaign of repression and personal power aggrandisement that is taking China back to the dark days of Mao Zedong.
Xi is striking out at anyone and any group that might challenge the Communist Party’s complete grip on power.
He has purged the party and the People’s Liberation Army of anyone who might question his leadership. The clampdown on the media in recent years is unprecedented, and has even stretched to the abduction and detention of book publishers from Hong Kong.
Hundreds of lawyers unwise enough to defend human rights activists whom the Xi regime wants to put away have found themselves detained and interrogated. Several lawyers already have been imprisoned on vague, trumped-up charges of “subverting state power,” and others are awaiting trial.
At the same time, Xi’s regime is cracking down on non-government organizations and civil society groups. New rules have been introduced that make it very difficult for foreign NGOs to continue working in China, while local operations are being stripped of any foreign funds and forced to work under the supervision of the party.
Xi’s creation of what can now justly be called a fascist state is a particular insult to Canada and Canadian taxpayers. Ever since the period in the 1980s after the death of Mao, when it appeared China was opening up and Beijing might be contemplating political reform, successive Ottawa governments have spent many, many millions of dollars on dozens of programmes aimed at stimulating change.
Of special note in the context of what is happening today is the fact that tens of millions of Canadian dollars were spent on judicial reform and the training of Chinese lawyers. Well, the only thing this appears to have achieved is the creation of a class of professionals with ideas that the Communist Party sees as a threat — people Beijing believes should either be intimidated into silence or locked up.
It’s the same with Chinese civil society organizations, in which Canadian taxpayers have also invested heavily. NGOs inevitably become carriages for people’s aspirations and, therefore, challenges to the authority of the ruling party.
It’s still better to be engaged with this Chinese regime than not. But we have to do so with our eyes wide open, and without clinging to the illusion that Canada somehow has a special place in Beijing’s heart. It doesn’t.
Author: Jonathan Manthorpe