Hugh Segal is Principal of Massey College, distinguished fellow at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, and at the Queen’s school Of Policy Studies. He is a former Chair of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade
The importance of Claws of the Panda, Jonathan Manthorpe’s new best-selling book, a meticulous and well-researched highly readable history of decades of Canada-China relations, goes far beyond what it reveals of Chinese tactics and Canadian government naivety under successive administrations. It is in many ways a primer on the central challenge of our era – the question of how democracies address the scope and depth of an authoritarian wave now picking up momentum.
Written and researched long before the present trade, high tech and extradition challenge between Canada and China, its timely appearance underlines the new dynamic democracies face when authoritarian powers, however previously benign, embark on strategies to expand their reach and sway beyond their own borders, especially when doing so without being respectful of international law or borders.
How we feel about China’s internal lack of due process, presumption of innocence, press freedom or tolerance for religious or ethnic diversity, is important, but not acutely relevant. The Communist Party of China, its presumption of sovereignty not only at home, but also over ethnic Chinese worldwide, is not about to relinquish or dilute its central and presumptive power and control. It certainly won’t do this as a result of peaceful entreaties from middle powers, however respectful or well-meaning.
As the massacre of students in Tiananmen Square and the persecutions of Tibetans and Uyghurs illustrate, control and authority is too central to Chinese Communist core doctrine to be softened to placate Western principles of freedom of assembly, expression or religion, or respect for diversity. And, while the People’s Republic of China has every right to manage its internal affairs without interference, we also have the right to pursue our own national interest without undue Chinese influence.
China’s impressive economic success, lifting millions of its own people out of adverse poverty, is to the credit of many parts of their economic and industrial policy.
What Mr. Manthorpe’s work clearly underlines is the economic, social and political equation at China’s core: Prosperity is the result of central control, focus and a clearly defined Communist Party and state-driven purpose. Qualities we hold as important – the right of dissent, democratic pluralism, freedom from fear – are seen by the Chinese government as weaknesses in our democratic societies to be exploited in the new great game of global trade and diplomatic competition. For every measure of liberal democracy and open economic and political markets we treasure, the Chinese government has double measures of perceived superiority for their own history and civilization to fuel their own self-confident strategy, at home and abroad.
That millions of Chinese have left to emigrate to Canada and elsewhere, or study in our universities, or seek to carve out more democratic societies in Hong Kong or Taiwan, speaks for itself on the distinction we should keep clear between the Chinese people and their authoritarian government. Our challenge, in terms of diplomatic, trade and strategic policy, is with the Communist Party and the government and forces it controls, not with the Chinese people.
Does all of this mean that Canadians were wrong to sell wheat, open diplomatic relations, or assist the Chinese with international organizations over the past half century? Or that Mr. Nixon should not have gone to Beijing? Absolutely not – isolation of a massive economic or demographic competitor is never the answer, unless war is a preferred outcome.
In assessing the intent of any global competitor, contextual awareness is one of the first requirements for tactical understanding and strategic planning. The revelations of Claws of the Panda lead to a very clear set of contextual conclusions for a well meaning middle power like Canada.
We need new rules of the road.
Our engagement with China must set aside the temptations of presuming fair minded universal intent on the part of Chinese state-controlled instruments, economic, diplomatic or military. We must be more focused on the protection of our own security and freedoms from Chinese subversion, including the freedoms of our fellow Canadians of Chinese extraction. Countries that wish access to our resources, technology and investment on normative terms do not get to launch cyber attacks against us, from military and intelligence units controlled by the state. We must invest more with our allies in counter-intelligence and joint naval, air and cyber capacity in the Asian Pacific, not to threaten China’s legitimate regional dominance, or peaceful global economic aspirations, but to preclude illegitimate adventurism which a Chinese communist authoritarian regime might well pursue if costs and risks to them are unclear.
Rules of the road between China and Canada, between an authoritarian economic great power and a democratic open market middle power, are essential if relationships are to develop in a mutually fair and constructive direction. Claws of the Panda makes a strong case for not allowing China to define those rules all by itself.