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Chinese academics say Canada’s reputation hindered by push for dirty oil sands crude

Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa May 14.

CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS

In the eyes of China's academics, Stephen Harper is "Canada's George W. Bush," a leader who has overseen a sullying of the country's international reputation as its national character is rewritten by the push for dirty oil sands crude.

Canada once took seriously its role as "defender of peace in the international community, a sincere mediator of international arguments and a good global citizen." But in a 400-page primer on Canada published by the Center for Canadian Studies at the Guangdong University of Foreign Studies, the country is described as veering sharply from its past.

"Canada's function as a model country is weakening," said the report. In the worst case, "its unique status globally will disappear as a consequence."

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The Chinese research, the first of its kind in what will be an annual series, was published this week as a "blue paper." It is a document intended to provide a snapshot of a country and set policy recommendations for China's diplomatic corps, government officials and business leaders. It is the product of two years of effort by more than 20 academics, and provides new insight into how China views Canada.

Last week, Luo Zhaohui, the new Chinese ambassador to Ottawa, said in an interview that relations are improving but still plagued by mutual suspicion.

The paper, for its part, calls China a "substitution" market for Canada as it seeks to move away from the U.S., and points to deepening cross-Pacific ties. "Canada is still sleeping with an elephant, but it has in the meantime begun dancing with the dragon."

In 2006, Mr. Harper publicly spoke about not selling "out to the almighty dollar" with China, before making an about-face three years later. Canada now almost never publicly criticizes China's detention of dissidents or concerted efforts to stomp out free speech.

The report describes Mr. Harper as an evangelical Christian steeped in the ideology of the U.S. Republican Party.

To China, however, he has seen the error of his ways. He "realized the damage" from values-based diplomacy, and switched to a "softer and more pragmatic attitude" with China, one that helped relations proceed "in a healthy and good way," the paper reports.

Still, China wants more. Zhong Weihe, the president of the Guangdong centre that published the report, pointed to two ways Canada can alleviate "mutual suspicion." He suggested Mr. Harper avoid meeting the Dalai Lama, and said Canadian politicians should quit criticizing China's governance system, even if it suppresses human rights in tolerating no challenge to the Communist Party.

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"What must be pointed out is that the frictions are to a great extent initiated by Canada, rather than by China," Mr. Zhong said.

The blue paper describes at length the deterioration of Canada's global standing, and suggests the "moral level" of Canada's diplomacy, "which Canada used to be proud of, is also dropping."

In part, that stems from the primacy placed on the economy by the Harper administration. "Ideals have been beaten by reality," said the report, which criticizes short-term thinking in the Canadian energy sector, particularly in the oil sands. "Placing a priority on exporting Canadian energy and raw materials is surely not good for Canada's economic development in the long-term, and is obviously not good for the environment."

The environmental criticism, in particular, is likely to raise eyebrows.

In China, 20 per cent of farm land and over half of ground water is polluted, while much of the country routinely chokes under a heavy blanket of thick smog. Cancer villages fester in the shadow of heavy industry, and bad air knocks as much as five years off life expectancy.

China is no paragon of environmental cleanliness — and it is among the world powers most guilty of choosing short-term economic gain over long-term good. Chinese companies are also major investors in the oil sands, which the report nonetheless calls "the dirtiest, most wasteful and unsustainable energy resource." It favourably cites Andrew Nikiforuk, who has been among Canada's sharpest-tongued scourges of the energy industry's environmental record.

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It also punches back at Bruce Gilley, a Fellow of the Queen's University Centre for International and Defence Policy, who has argued that Canada needs to take a more principled stand on China.

"We have been schooled to always give Beijing face, never upbraid them, and generally let them define the relationship. This is nonsense," he wrote in 2008. China needs Canada to bolster its "international respectability," but Canada "cannot have a mature and productive relationship with Beijing unless we are willing to openly state our differences and criticisms of its regime."

The blue paper's riposte: that can't be allowed to happen. Any effort by Canada to sneak in advocacy for good governance — through NGOs, aid or otherwise — "will bring challenges and risks to cooperation between the two countries."

To Mr. Gilley, the Chinese focus on his comments is surprising, given how little effort current-day Canada puts on advocating anything outside business interests with China. But, he said, "Beijing knows that, unlike, say Singapore, it is vulnerable on the good governance agenda because in fact it does not govern that well."

He held out little hope of Canada holding a firm line, though: "Beijing almost always gets its way with Canada."

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