The Chinese Puzzle Box
Posted Thu, Jan 14, 2010

Round one to the Chinese Government.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s recent visit to China was an eye opener – both for observers and, one can only hope, for our government. Having previously lived and worked in China, I tend to follow developments there closely. Given that the Middle Kingdom is arguably already the second most important country in the world, and is currently Canada’s second largest trading partner, it is good that our government has now decided to do the same.

Most don’t realize it, but China currently boasts the world’s third largest economy, and is a country whose economic development over the past thirty years has been unprecedented. One of the biggest mistakes the West – led by the United States – has made over the last decade has been to underestimate, and largely ignore China. In recent years, Canada’s conduct has been a prime example of this. Our bizarre one country isolation of China in the last few years has made no sense, particularly since Canada was once well positioned to benefit from China’s rise.

Historically, Canada has had an excellent reputation there. Every Chinese schoolchild is taught who Bethune was – which is probably more than can be said for Canadian kids. Trudeau’s early outreach to the then isolated communist China, during the early days of their rapprochement with the outside world, left a lasting sense of goodwill. Had the proper strategy been adopted over the past twenty years, China’s rise could well have proven an enormous boon to Canada’s economic fortunes.

Too often, however, leaders from Western countries made the mistake of reflexively seeing the past when they looked at China, rather than the reality, or much less the future of what that country was to become. Only now have most developed countries woken up to the reality of modern China, and as the Prime Minister could probably attest, it has been a rude awakening indeed.

During his visit, Prime Minister Harper was repeatedly chided by senior Chinese officials: both Premier Wen Jiabao, and President Hu Jintao personally pointed out how long it had taken Canada’s “new” Prime Minister to officially visit China. These concerns were more pointedly echoed by the state controlled Chinese media, which expressed the view that Harper’s “overdue visit” might lead to a “thaw” in relations, and had characterized the Prime Minister as previously turning “a cold shoulder to China.” Such apparently mild criticism might not sound like much, but in the Chinese context, direct public criticism by the top Chinese leaders, particularly in the presence of another country’s leader, is almost unheard of. Make no mistake, this very public and repeated rebuke was intended to send a message to our government – and a pretty blunt one at that, if you understand how the Chinese government operates.

By raising this concern in a public forum, the Chinese Premier subtly put the Prime Minister on the spot, pressuring him to publicly concede that “more regular visits would make sense.” The subtext was clear: the Chinese leadership wanted to force the Prime Minster to admit that his lack of an earlier visit to China, and by extension the government’s initial policy of reticence to China, was wrong, and to apologize for it. In other words, they recognized the muted criticism of their country implicit in Canada’s standoffishness, and didn’t appreciate it.

The Chinese media’s characterization of the attitude towards the Prime Minister’s visit was telling; it was described as being “late, but welcome.” Translation: we’re now on probation, and while what they viewed as our recent slights have not been forgotten, closer ties are possible as long as we act appropriately in the future. Having made this point and rapped Canada’s knuckles by extracting an apology of sorts from the Prime Minister, in typical Chinese government fashion the Prime Minister’s hosts then pivoted toward the carrot. Granting Canada the long sought-after status of a “preferred tourist destination,” and agreeing to open a Chinese consulate in Montreal demonstrated the benefits of remaining in the communist government’s good graces. Game, set, and match to the Prime Minister’s Chinese hosts.

This is not to say that the Canadian government’s concerns about China, which underlay the recent “policy” of not pursuing close relations, were unfounded. Few would argue that China’s human rights record and ongoing practices should be ignored or papered over by any responsible member of the international community, and our government’s treatment of China has surely been shaped by these concerns (along with the remnants of an outmoded cold war mentality).

Indeed, the recent chill in relations can be traced back to Ottawa’s blunt criticism of China’s jailing a Canadian citizen belonging to China’s Uighur minority in 2006. Later that year, the Prime Minister directly addressed the notion of building closer trading ties with China by famously saying “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that. But I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values.” Equally blunt was the Prime Minister’s early public support of the Dali Lama (who, in the official Chinese media, is absurdly depicted as something akin to a James Bond villain: he is officially regarded as a “splittist” terrorist leader, tirelessly working with his villainous minions to break up the country).

The fact is, Ottawa’s continued criticism of China’s human rights record over the past few years has been principled, but directionless and amateurish. The issue is not whether we merely recognize these shortcomings, but rather to what end our criticism is to serve. Here we could learn something from the Chinese government, which internationally speaks softly, but carries a big stick. Each move they make is calculated to achieve some end; empty bluster is our style, not theirs.

If Canada actually wants to impact the human rights situation in China, merely giving the cold shoulder to a self-sufficient country more powerful than we are is not likely to accomplish much. As the United States discovered in recent years, the notion that ignoring countries we don’t like will prove sufficient punishment to bring them to heel is more than a little simplistic, if not painfully egocentric. This is particularly so when those countries don’t really need us in the first place.

In some cases, international isolation can be effective, but in order to be so, it generally requires widespread cooperation from like-minded countries, among other things. What essentially boils down to a solo effort to do so, such as that Canada has imposed on China in recent years, could only be laughably ineffective. Indeed, even the notion of joint or widespread international isolation of China has now become unthinkable, given the degree to which the Middle Kingdom is now integrated into the world economy.

From an economic point of view, Canada needs China more than China needs us, and their government knows it. They also know where the balance of power lies in the relations between the two countries; subtly forcing the Prime Minister to verbally repudiate his previous policy was intended to send more than one message.

So how is Canada to now manage its newly reset relations with China? This is an important question, and one with no easy answer. The message China has sent to Canada is the same other democratic countries have heard: economic dialogue and trade is welcome, but all but the mildest criticism of their internal affairs (as they deem human rights considerations to be) will not be tolerated and will invite reprisals. The joint statement released by Canada and China during the visit was typical, with no quarter or a hint of concession given with respect to the human rights issue: it said only that the two countries agreed they have “distinct views” in this area. This was akin to, and about as useful as, coming to agree that both countries reside on the planet Earth – an obvious statement of fact which promises no further introspection, much less action. To his credit, the Prime Minister did show that Canada would not be cowed into avoiding mention of human rights altogether. In his press conference, he again directly mentioned Tibet – something sure to irritate his hosts, and which may have been intended to send a message of his own.

At the end of the day, however, Canada – as are other democratic countries – is in a bind, when it comes to dealing with China. To put it starkly: Do we sweep human rights concerns under the carpet in the name of trade? Or do we suffer economically in defense of the values the Prime Minister spoke of? That’s the puzzle box we have to solve.

There’s no easy answer to this quandary, but if this recent visit to China has shown us anything, it’s that from now on we’d better have a plan. Otherwise this will only be the first in a long line of rounds that won’t be going Canada’s way.

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Darren Thorne
Darren Thorne, B.A., LL.B., LL.M. Educated at the London School of Economics and Political Science (Master of Laws Degree) and Toronto's Osgoode Hall Law School (Bachelor of Laws), Darren Thorne is an international lawyer specializing in international law, development and human rights. Based in Europe in recent years, Mr. Thorne has an extensive history of onsite international development work and within the last two years has been involved in project work in Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa, Mongolia and Italy, among other places.

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