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Opinion Don’t blame John McCallum for Canada’s current China mess

John Higginbotham is currently a senior fellow at Carleton and CIGI. He retired from Canada’s foreign service, which included five China assignments in Beijing, Hong Kong and Ottawa.

So the government has decided to throw Ambassador John McCallum under the bus. He should be happy to be released from this leg trap. Thank you for your service, John. Really. I served in various senior federal positions in China and Hong Kong since the early 1970s and feel obliged to deliver some self-criticism, as the Red Guards used to say during the Cultural Revolution.

Under the administration of the first Prime Minister Trudeau, Canada decided to recognize the People’s Republic of China in 1970 to draw the country into the community of nations, as well as to demonstrate Canada’s independence from the United States.

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At the time, China was a very poor and ideologically conflicted Maoist country. Canada and other Western countries supported Deng Xiaoping’s (and Zhou Enlai’s) openness and economic reform agenda.

There was real progress in China’s evolution during the 1980s from a rogue, revolutionary regime facing Soviet invasion to a far more developed and – in some important ways – liberal and market-driven society.

But there were warning signs from the very beginning about China’s unique approach to international economic relations, but not enough to blunt the momentum of Canada’s opening.

I failed to highlight these risks, as have almost all other so-called China experts working.

It all started for me at an unprecedented Canadian Trade Exhibition in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution in the early 1970s. Officials found Chinese experts disassembling the exhibits and photographing them after midnight. Canada complained mildly.

Our Canadian organizers understood then that the moderate faction had bought off the local Maoists in Shanghai with the argument that reverse engineering the products and systems of the outside world while closing subsidized strategic industries to Western involvement would eventually make China great again. Making a fuss would create lack of confidence in the Canadian business community.

Under-weighting China’s history, Canada trusted China would indeed abandon its totalitarian politics for enlightened democracy and recognize that its deeply self-reliant economic development strategy was a dead end.

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We now know that China has been hijacking technology from Canadian and Western companies in more and ever-increasing sophisticated ways since the 1970s. Some believe the collapse of Nortel and RIM can be partly attributed to Chinese intellectual poaching.

The Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 shocked Canadians and created the first real crisis in Canada-China relations, including a lengthy diplomatic boycott of China.

Unfortunately, as Canada rebuilt its China policy, trade became all important, with politically popular Team Canada pageants uncritically encouraging private-sector linkages with Chinese entities more interested in technological transfer than importing goods.

Since then, despite many worthy efforts, Canada has run bigger and bigger trade deficits with China with modest export and investment growth in comparison with our competitors. Our China political debate has deteriorated into scoreboards of trade agreements signed, not results achieved.

Over the decades, China has fine-tuned its core Autarkic model of national economic development into a sophisticated engine of licit and illicit scientific and technology acquisition, under a veneer of middle-class consumerism and modernity.

Meanwhile, Canada has kept a very low profile on the need for tighter, unified Western ground rules on strategic intellectual-property exports to China. We have enjoyed a free ride on American efforts to influence China on its growing predatory intellectual property, exchange rate and trade agreement actions.

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So don’t blame John McCallum. Making a couple of Chinese diplomats persona non grata, joining forces with the United States on its new China policy and banning Huawei now would have been smarter.

Our current China crisis is systemic as well as accidental. Canada’s vulnerabilities to Chinese and American pressures are deeply embedded and largely self-created. Over the long term, strengthened self-reliant economic development policies (à la Pierre Trudeau’s Third Option) and serious security policies should underpin a new Canadian China narrative, as globalist visions dissolve in the acid of the new geopolitics.

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