Guy Saint-Jacques served as Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016. He is also a fellow of the China Institute at the University of Alberta.
“Canada is China’s best friend,” former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji famously said in November, 1998. There was then a heavy flow of visitors in both directions and a genuine desire in China to move forward with the rule of law and gradual democracy. Its impending entry into the World Trade Organization was going to result in more business opportunities and more contacts with the outside world, which would help China move in the right direction. Well, that plan didn’t work.
Instead, China has become more assertive and aggressive – certain that maintaining an authoritarian regime is the best way for the Communist Party of China (CCP) to survive and protect the privileges of its princelings and their families. Technological development has enabled the CCP to better limit freedom of speech and religion, while silencing calls for a more transparent political process.
When Xi Jinping became the paramount leader in November, 2012, he gave a new impetus to this model. He declared that the time had come for China to take its rightful place on the international scene, placing its people in prominent international organizations, creating its own institutions and launching the Belt and Road Initiative to increase its sphere of influence (and the size of its markets). At the 19th CPC Congress in October, 2017, Mr. Xi went further by underlining the economic success China had achieved without adopting Western values.
In terms of its relationship with China, Canada has gradually lost influence. We are now China’s 21st export market, and China has lost hope in concluding a free-trade agreement with us, which would have been its first with a G7 country. This potential agreement was our last bargaining chip. Despite repeated warnings about Mr. Xi’s tightening grip on Chinese society, and events such as the arrests of Kevin and Julia Garratt in August, 2014, some of the political class in Ottawa remained ambivalent about China.
All this changed after the arrests of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor in retaliation for the arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou in December, 2018. The successful campaign to get international support for Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor’s release took Beijing by surprise and tarnished its image of a benevolent superpower that pretends to be the new champion of multilateralism and free trade. Even still, Ottawa decided to adopt an appeasement strategy, hoping that it would lead to the release of our two Canadians.
A year and a half later, what has been achieved? There has been no improvement in the detention conditions of Mr. Kovrig and Mr. Spavor, and we lost $4.5-billion in exports in 2019, with a further 16-per-cent drop in the first quarter of this year. We expressed little criticism of what is happening to Uyghurs in Xinjiang and pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. We were late to support Australia’s resolution for an independent investigation of the COVID-19 pandemic. And we tolerate Chinese interference on Canadian campuses, not to mention continuing industrial espionage. China has succeeded in getting us to exercise self-censorship without ever giving us anything in return. The way China handled the new coronavirus pandemic confirmed how the CCP functions. Simply put, China has lost the trust of the international community.
After the decision by Associate Chief Justice Heather Holmes in the case of Ms. Meng, we have to brace ourselves for the fact that relations with China won’t improve for a long time. The extradition process may drag on for years unless it is decided after a June hearing that Ms. Meng’s rights were not respected when she was arrested.
It is high time for the Canadian government to adopt a much firmer attitude with China: That is the only language the CCP respects. As Paul Monk put it in the Australian on May 16, “We have nothing to hope for from [Mr. Xi] and must accustom ourselves to playing economic and strategic hardball, because it is the way he is playing the game.”
We should continue to work with like-minded countries to put pressure on China to free the two Michaels and to reinforce a multilateral system. The message should be clear: We want a constructive relationship with a prospering China and constructive change inside China – as long as it respects international laws and treaties and stops acting like a bully when a country does not follow its diktats. We can also take domestic measures to make China realize that while we may be insignificant to them, there is still a price to pay. Finally, we need to build up our China competencies to better inform our dealings with the CCP’s leadership.
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