Stephen Harper is on a trade mission in China. In the early days of his reign, such a trip seemed unlikely: He was the free world's most ardent China basher, scolding the eastern giant over “values,” making the Dalai Lama an honorary Canadian and skipping the opening of the Beijing Olympics.
Incredulous, Canadian business leaders broke out their chequebooks to arm lobbying firms to slap some sense into the government. Human rights be damned – China was rising. And Team Corporate Canada wanted a piece.
That seems like a long time ago. While Europe and America are aping dysfunctional banana republics, actual banana republics are starting to look like Zurich on a building spree: Ethiopia grows by 10 per cent a year, followed closely by Angola; Brazil is a powerhouse; the Indians are almost as formidable; and Turkey now calls the shots in the Middle East.
What do these countries share in common? They all have something akin to the Chinese model of state capitalism, according to a recent Economist special report titled The Visible Hand: One-party rule and tightly centralized power, driven by state-financed megacompanies that operate in economies garnished with the sprigs of liberalism.
It's the vogue way of doing business in the developing world, this “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as Deng Xiaoping once put it – beloved by those with an authoritarian streak. And it has surprising corollaries with the Canadian system.
How did Canada and Ethiopia start looking like economic bedfellows? We were once assured that the free market was the gateway drug to neo-liberal democracy. But no one outside of the Washington Beltway has swallowed that canard since the markets imploded in 2008, and Ottawa is a case in point.
After all, Mr. Harper isn't really a conservative in the proper sense of the term, however much he may go to church or play show tunes on the piano. When he secured a parliamentary majority, his legion of free-market vampire capitalists were supposed to suck the country dry of its social-liberal lifeblood; the centre-left feared Canada would become an adjunct of the Chicago school, guided by the spectral hands of the neo-cons.
In hindsight, this was an absurd misjudgment of the man now nibbling 1,000-year-old egg during Beijing photo ops. Mr. Harper is, above all, a pragmatist and a control freak. Canada has almost always been governed millimetres right or left of centre. The current Conservative regime is no different. In fact, when it comes to hypercontrolled centrism, Mr. Harper can hardly be beat.
Try to find an appreciable difference between parastatal China Mobile, with its 600 million customers, and the Rogers/Bell duopoly – an institution that a true-blue neo-con would have annihilated within seconds of coming into power. (Along with China National Petroleum Corp., China Mobile raked in $33-billion in 2009, largely because there's no air for competition. Sound familiar?)
Likewise, there isn't a Canadian who has lived through the age of commercial flight who doesn't think of Air Canada as a ward of the state – its striking employees forced back to work by the government, its operating costs underwritten by an unspoken guarantee.
We're constantly reminded that we didn't have to bail out our banks during the recent financial meltdown, but that's mostly because we'd already bailed them out in the 1990s, and were smart enough to learn our lesson. Anyone who assumes Ottawa would let RBC fail should it bet the farm on, say, micro-lending in South Sudan, doesn't know foreclosure from Foursquare.
State capitalism provides governments with the ability to control critical segments of the market, hands them the keys to the economy's engine room and allows them political influence over the men and women who make up the management class. It transforms the governing party into mandarins of a well-behaved economic court, all of whom are eternally grateful for the beneficence of the statist Sun King.
Despite the doomsday prognostications, Mr. Harper never devolved into an unholy compound of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Dick Cheney's board at Halliburton. He's much closer to being Lula da Silva without the leftist rhetoric, Vladimir Putin without the Botox or Hu Jintao without Ai Weiwei to beat up.
Of course, Canadians enjoy the rule of law, freedom of speech and expression and fair elections. The Chinese, famously, don't. We're rich; we're safe; we are doused by water cannons only on special occasions. Far from proving that Canada doesn't practise a version of state capitalism, this suggests that even a country run by a hard-core free-market ideologue finds it much more orderly and calming to fix the game as much as possible in advance, and make an early night of it.
Call it “state capitalism with Canadian characteristics.” After playing coy for so many years, Mr. Harper probably feels right at home in China.
Richard Poplak's latest book is The Sheik's Batmobile . He is currently based in Johannesburg, working on a book about China's presence in Africa.