David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.
What a difference a year makes. In December, 2017, Canada’s biggest foreign policy problem was the Prime Minister’s failure to persuade China to accept a progressive trade agreement, one that included commitments relating to labour, gender and the environment. In December, 2018, we are facing China’s fury for complying with a U.S. request to arrest Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese telecom firm Huawei, an act that has already cost Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor their freedom.
Although the punishment China is meting out to us is cruel, it is, sadly, not unusual. Australia, Britain and Sweden have seen their nationals detained by Beijing on similarly flimsy pretexts. Nor is the experience new to us. In 2014, Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt were imprisoned in the wake of Canada’s decision to extradite Chinese citizen Su Bin to the United States, where he admitted to having stolen military secrets. Julia Garratt was released in January, 2015, while her husband would spend 19 months in detention.
China’s furious response to Ms. Meng’s arrest has unsettled some Canadian observers who have commented that we should simply have looked the other way and allowed Ms. Meng to slip out of Vancouver. Thinking along these lines was encouraged by a typically clumsy intervention by U.S. President Donald Trump, who said he might use Ms. Meng as a bargaining chip if it helped him get a better deal in his trade negotiations with China.
As frustrating as the President’s comments were, we should not succumb to the belief that there is some moral equivalence between the United States and China. Our interests and values are still far more closely aligned with those of the United States than they are with China’s.
Mr. Trump’s conduct may be appalling, but he faces powerful counterbalancing forces in the U.S. government, media and civil society. Chinese President Xi Jinping, however, holds uncontested power: His word is law – or what passes for it. Having abolished the term limits set by his predecessors, Mr. Xi is likely to be with us for some time.
We need to understand that China behaves the way it does because it works. This is enabled by a chorus of advisers in the West who don’t seem particularly discomfited by how China treats people at home or abroad. The global consulting firm McKinsey, whose bullish line on China is avidly consumed by our own government, recently held a lavish retreat for its executives in Xinjiang, in China’s far west, ground zero for the country’s repression of its Muslim Uyghurs.
Our attention all too quickly shifts from stories about China’s assertiveness and repression to stories about its gleaming cities and globe-trotting ultra-rich. We seem incapable of seeing it whole.
The current China crisis has many subplots: concerns about China as a violator of Iran sanctions, about the possibility that it uses corporations such as Huawei to vacuum foreign technology and about the stunning disregard it displays for the rights of citizens – foreign and Chinese. But they all connect to a larger narrative that is finally taking hold, one that concedes that China is an increasingly irresponsible power and partner, one that feigns compliance with international norms only when it is convenient to do so.
The current crisis offers an opportunity for new thinking. We can’t ignore China, nor should we disrespect it. But we need to consider whether our engagement of China should be as circumscribed and conditional as is China’s participation in our rules-based international order.
While our immediate objective is freeing our citizens, a larger theme is emerging, one that offers Canada a chance to show leadership.
We should be discussing with allies how we can do a better job protecting sensitive technologies in our private and academic sectors, how we can more effectively ward off Chinese interference in our democratic political systems and how we can more effectively hold China accountable for respecting human rights at home and abroad.
For too long the preferred approach to each successive China crisis has been to get back to normal as quickly as possible without doing or saying anything that might possibly harm China’s delicate feelings – or cause it to change its behaviour.
It’s time for a new normal.