By Wenran Jiang
(Jan 19, 2007)
The Globe and Mail
Finally, a long overdue positive development in Canada's bumpy relations with China: International Trade Minister David Emerson's current mission there, with a good number of Canadian businesses in tow.
For most of 2006, the Conservatives paid little attention to China. And when they did, controversy was the norm. Remember Foreign Minister Peter MacKay's comments that Chinese spies were engaging in industrial espionage in Canada; some Conservative MPs' seemingly intense interest in participating in Taiwan-organized activities; the offering of an honorary Canadian citizenship to the Dalai Lama, to name just a few?
Then came the confusing story of whether Prime Minister Stephen Harper would meet — or not meet — with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the APEC summit last November. Mr. Harper's chosen polemic has since become the signature of the government's China policy position: Canada will not sacrifice human rights on the altar of the “almighty dollar” in its relations with China.
Such grandstanding, while celebrated by some as principled, is both intellectually flawed and politically manipulative. It is intellectually flawed because establishing and imposing such a false dichotomy between trade and human rights demonstrates a poor understanding of China's development dynamics. It is politically manipulative because the statement was designed as a partisan shot to show the Conservatives are different from the Liberals who had “sold out” Canadian values to seek closer economic ties with Beijing.
The real problem is that the Conservatives have done little beyond partisan politics to promote Canadian national interests in our relations with China. As the months pass, it becomes clear the minority government has not formulated a coherent China policy. It behaves more like it's in opposition, holding hearings rather than making and implementing policies.
Take human rights, for example. The Conservatives have criticized previous Liberal governments for neglecting China's human-rights issues, suspended the annual government-level human-rights dialogue, and positioned themselves on a moral high ground. Yet, they have no programs in place for Canada to promote effective and meaningful changes in China.
Granted, the government's annual human-rights dialogue was not working well and a new approach was needed. But there have been a range of CIDA programs and good governance projects in China that have, over the years, made significant contributions to the rule of law and human-rights improvements. The Conservative government's throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater approach has created confusion for our diplomats who work on these projects.
Now, certain policy-makers in Ottawa are flirting with the idea of pursuing “hot” economic relations with Beijing, while maintaining “cold,” winter-like political relations. They argue the Chinese “should not be rewarded” for bad human-rights behaviour and that they should learn to live with political criticism; they reason Beijing will accept such a formula due to commercial concerns.
Hence, the federal government dispatched its ministers of agriculture and natural resources to Beijing in recent months, signalling business as usual. And now, with both Mr. Emerson and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty in Beijing, the Conservatives are seeking new momentum in China that was lost for most of the past year.
But the idea of separating politics from economics in dealing with China does not serve Canada's national interests well. Nor will it work. Globalization will spur commerce between the two countries, but when it comes to large projects, it is the countries that have positive political relations with China that will be given priority.
Furthermore, political disengagement will shut Canada out of China's reform process, making it impossible for Canada to play a constructive role in promoting human rights and democracy in China, a goal this government has stated is a priority in its foreign policy platform.
While Mr. Emerson may have succeeded in reversing the negative trend of Canada-China relations, the real challenge for the Conservative government is to go beyond the “rights versus trade” dichotomy, develop a China strategy beyond partisan politics, manage to engage China positively on both economic and political fronts, and develop a vision that not only serves Canada's own interests, but also generates change inside China that can move that country toward democracy and a better protection of human rights.