The Team Canada trade mission to China scheduled for later this year should help Canadian business take advantage of an expanding market that is poised to fully enter the international trading system, a China business expert said.
But human rights activists said Prime Minister Jean Chrétien must use the trip to make meaningful progress on China's human rights record, or the trade mission will be another signal that Canada is not serious about such issues.
"I'm questioning the wisdom of it," said Michael To, president of the Federation for a Democratic China, a Canadian-Chinese dissent group.
The last Team Canada trade mission to China in 1994 achieved little on the trade front and even less on the human rights front, he said yesterday. "I think the result was very questionable economically, and at the same time we seem to be very ineffective in terms of our human rights agenda."
Every year since 1994, the Prime Minister and most of the provincial premiers have led a business delegation to an area of the world where they think trade opportunities abound.
Government officials told The Globe and Mail this week that Ottawa has selected China for the next Team Canada trade mission in November. The 10-day trip will start Nov. 17 -- after the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Brunei -- and will visit Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. An official announcement from the Prime Minister's Office is expected in a few weeks.
While Mr. To agreed with Canada's policy of using trade missions to engage countries in discussions about human rights, he said Mr. Chrétien has a history of making empty gestures. The Vancouver APEC summit in December, 1997, in particular, sent a signal to the world that Canada would be tolerant and accommodating to human rights abusers, such as then Indonesian president Suharto, Mr. To said.
"Chrétien tends to mouth the words, without putting teeth to it," he said. "I suggest they should put some stronger pressure, and they should let them know that they really mean it."
Specifically, Ottawa should ask for a commitment from the Chinese Congress that it will ratify two key United Nations human rights accords, and tell Canada how it plans to implement the accords, Mr. To said.
The business community is already seeing dollar signs. China has signed agreements with Canada and the United States setting out terms for the country to join the World Trade Organization. Once the U.S. Congress passes the pact and once China signs a similar deal with the European Community, Chinese accession to the WTO should follow quickly.
The Canada-China Business Council believes accession could happen as early as June, which will immediately make the Chinese market more predictable and safe for investors. The Team Canada trade mission would give Canadian companies a leg up at a time when the market is increasingly attractive, executive director Fred Spoke said. "Hopefully, we'll be moving to a rules-based environment," he said.
The WTO deal that Canada negotiated with China should open up opportunities for Canadians in sectors such as information technology, telecommunications and agriculture, Mr. Spoke said.
Having the Prime Minister and provincial premiers on hand in China in November should help iron out the difficulties companies may be having in sealing deals, he added.
"Team Canada elevates [business deals]to a high political level, which is important . . . in unplugging roadblocks," he said. With Team Canada, he added, "all of a sudden, things get done."