The one silver lining in the extradition case against Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, now entering its second year, is that Beijing’s behaviour has awakened Canadians – including senior members of the Trudeau government – to the nature of China’s Communist Party regime. Many in Ottawa and the business community had talked themselves into believing fantasies about the hard men who run Beijing. Some imagined that, although China might play rough with other countries, Canada would somehow be entitled to special treatment.
Instead, Beijing has spent the last year giving Canada a special education in how it sees our not-at-all special relationship.
We should be thankful for the lessons. The Trudeau government, and the entire political and business establishment, must study them carefully. It may allow this country to finally get over its China delusions.
China, and the Communist regime that runs it, are not going anywhere. We will have to deal with them, hopefully on peaceful and respectful terms, for a long time to come. But the starting point for the relationship has to be Canada being honest with itself about who we are dealing with.
When Canada followed the rules of its extradition treaty with its closest ally, Beijing had no hesitation in taking two of our citizens hostage – there is no other way to describe what happened to Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig – with the price of ransom being Ms. Meng’s release.
All the decades’ worth of treacly odes to Dr. Norman Bethune, Mao’s pet Canadian; all the gratitude Canada supposed it was owed for early recognition of the Communist regime; all the alleged reverence for Trudeau père that allegedly would carry over to Trudeau fils – all turned out to be worth exactly nothing.
Totalitarian dictatorships are not sentimental. That’s not something Canada should have had to learn.
The two Michaels are of course still locked up, and there is no sign of their release. Yet despite the importance of their condition, the long-term goal of Canada’s China foreign policy is bigger than securing the safe return of two innocents.
Canada of course has to continue to demand their release. But it is essential that Ottawa understand that our prisoners in Beijing are also levers that can be used to pressure Canada into going silent on other matters – human rights, the rule of law, Chinese spying, Hong Kong, and a long list of worries that Washington and other Western governments have – in favour of focusing on what China wants, and how it wants Canada to behave so as to avoid being subjected to future hostage-takings.
Canada has never had a relationship like this. The Soviet Union was a superpower, but it was also a clear adversary. We joined the world’s most important military alliance to oppose it, and it was part of a separate economic system, with which we had almost no trade. The lines between the two worlds were thick and bright.
China, in contrast, is part of all of the formerly “Western” or “developed” world’s main institutions. It is our second-most important economic relationship, after the United States. And China is an economic success story; its growth over the past four decades has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.
Yet China is also run by a regime that operates rather similar to how the Trump administration would if it were unfettered by such basic constraints as elections, independent judges, free speech or the rule of law.
While there was a time when its party dictatorship appeared to be moving closer to democratic norms, with the Communist Party dispensing with cults of personality and loosening party control, under Xi Jinping that trend is aggressively reversing. It is now clear that Beijing joined the international community’s institutions without sharing the international community’s practices and values.
To survive in this new world, Canada needs allies and alliances. Beijing has become expert at playing divide-and-conquer, punishing those who don’t do as they’re told and rewarding those that go along to get along. And too many, including Canada, have too often been too ready to go along.
From Sussex Drive to Bay Street, a lot of people would like nothing better than for the past year’s nastiness to be forgotten. But that would mean forgetting all the valuable lessons learned.