From Parliament Hill to Bay Street, Canadians were long bamboozled by the promise of China. World’s most populous nation. World’s biggest market. The bottomless pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If to get rich is glorious, as Deng Xiaoping put it, then for two generations of Canadian politicians and business people, China was imagined as the most glorious get-rich opportunity, ever.
Unfortunately, the real People’s Republic of China is not just an economic opportunity. It is also a threat. And that threat is growing. This is no passing storm. China’s rapid rise, even as it remains an unapologetically totalitarian state, is geopolitical climate change on an unprecedented scale. We must think hard about how to mitigate its impact.
The irony is that the Trudeau government came into office criticizing the Harper Conservatives for being too critical of China. The Liberals pitched deeper engagement with Beijing as the key to prosperity. The new team in Ottawa appeared to be blissfully clueless about the regime they were trying so hard to get into bed with.
Those China blinders were quickly ripped off. Ottawa has been treated to a series of disillusionments, and ever-increasing doses of wisdom, via exposure to unpleasant truths about the People’s Republic.
The latest lesson comes from the arbitrary detention since last December of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, and their official charging this week with state-secret crimes, which carry the death penalty.
Beijing kidnapped them – there is no other way to describe it – in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, who is facing charges in the United States. Ms. Meng is fighting extradition though the Canadian legal system, in open court, while living in one of the two luxury homes she owns in Vancouver.
The two Canadians, in contrast, have been held incommunicado, in conditions of solitary confinement and repeated interrogation.
As for their legal rights, they don’t really have any. China doesn’t have laws in a way that we would understand them. Government is not limited by law, or subject to it.
So what’s Canada to do? In the long run, Canadian governments dealing with Beijing need to keep four things in mind.
China is more threat than opportunity. Unlike our other major trading partners, China is not a democratic, rule-of-law country. There was once hope China could behave as a rule-of-law country internationally, even as it remained a dictatorship at home. There was also a belief that China’s economic advances would lead to an opening up of its political system. That hasn’t happened. If anything, the Xi Jinping regime is turning back the clock on individual freedoms.
That lack of Chinese political liberalization is at the root of what is fast turning into a new Cold War. Among the problems: In a world of liberalized trade, the rules end up benefiting the totalitarian state, since its companies can access the protections of our legal system, while our companies are subject to perfectly legal shakedowns in China.
China is not our enemy. But it is not our friend. There was once a fantasy that friendship would be as easy as establishing personal connections with Beijing’s ruling circle. They would surely melt at the mention of the sainted memory of Norman Bethune, the Canadian physician who followed Mao Zedong, founder of the People’s Republic and murderer of millions.
Mao wasn’t a sentimental man and neither are his heirs.
To counterbalance China, we need allies. Canada has long worked to build multilateral alliances to give us a bit of leverage when dealing with our giant neighbour, the United States. The giant across the ocean presents a similar, but more troubling, challenge. The good news is we have natural allies. That list includes the U.S., at least in the post-Trump world. It includes the European Union. And it includes China’s worried democratic neighbours: Japan and South Korea.
We need to avoid becoming trade-dependent on China. We have natural allies who want to do likewise. That’s what the Trans-Pacific Partnership was supposed to be about. That’s what pursuing greater and freer trade with Japan and South Korea is about.
Canada should never aim to shut down trade with China. But we have to make sure the future doesn’t leave us without room to manoeuvre, or to push back.