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Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, look out over Shanghai, China on Saturday, December 5, 2009.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his wife, Laureen, look out over Shanghai, China on Saturday, December 5, 2009.

John Ibbitson

Scoring in China - without prostituting ourselves Add to ...

Stephen Harper has an unfailing ability to take a weak speech and make it even flatter through delivery, and his address to Chinese and Canadian business leaders Friday evening was no exception. But that's not the point.

The point is that, despite his mauling by Premier Wen Jiabao over the Conservative government's tardy and reluctant recognition of the importance of the China-Canada relationship, the Prime Minister's trip is substantively a success.

The Chinese granted Canada permission to market group tours of Chinese citizens to Canada - a privilege that other nations have long enjoyed, but that our country has been unsuccessfully seeking for a decade. Final agreement came late and was uncertain until the end, according to sources. Clearly, the Chinese knew that the Canadians needed deliverables, and were prepared to grant this one, though not without a good spanking first.

There were a few other accords as well, none of them earth-moving. In sum they appear to reflect a Chinese government willing to re-engage with Canada despite our years of self-imposed exile.

And the past few days demonstrate emphatically that Mr. Harper fully recognizes the vital importance to Canada's economic and geopolitical future of fully engaging with China, at every level, all the time.

"As economic power and human prosperity spreads from West to East, Canada's trade orientation is shifting also," Mr. Harper said in his speech. "It is clear that in the 21st century, trans-Pacific trade will increasingly fuel our economic growth."

So it will. But it is easier and more morally satisfying to trade with like-minded democracies such as the United States and Europe. China is not a democracy. It imprisons people for what they say; its judiciary is not to be trusted; it is corrupt.

The challenge for Canadians is to engage with China while not prostituting ourselves. Mr. Harper thought he could chastise the Chinese on human rights while simultaneously fostering trade. But the Chinese government had no intention of playing that game, which is why the diplomatic equivalent of corporal punishment was the price of readmission to the regime's good graces.

How to balance trade and human rights on the China file has baffled every Canadian government. Most just caved, shoving the issue aside. Mr. Harper believes he can promote both.

"Our government believes, and has always believed, that a mutually beneficial economic relationship is not incompatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental values like freedom, human rights and the rule of law," Mr. Harper said in his speech.

"…We will continue to raise issues of freedom and human rights, be a vocal advocate and an effective partner for human-rights reform, just as we pursue the mutually beneficial economic relationship desired by both our countries."

Properly handled, this is the approach that all the Western democracies should be taking. The equilibrium of this century depends on helping China manage its growth, as laissez faire capitalism pits staggering urban wealth against grinding rural poverty; as the Middle Kingdom takes its place at the forefront of nations without, as yet, the mechanisms to ensure peace and justice within its borders and without.

Thus far, Mr. Harper has stumbled repeatedly as he seeks his own equilibrium in dealing with the China Question. But he is an intelligent and pragmatic man. He is able to learn.

How well he learns could help determine our prosperity and, in Canada's own quiet way, contribute to peace in the coming time.

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Follow on Twitter: @JohnIbbitson

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