What about the whole Communist thing? - Macleans.ca

What about the whole Communist thing?

Paul Wells on the Conservatives’ turnaround on China

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Suddenly in the great thrall of China

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

So John Baird went to China and everybody wrung their hands. What about human rights, minister? What about the Chinese people under the Communist jackboot?

“No more Stephen Harper vowing not to sell out human rights for ‘the almighty dollar,’ ” Rod Mickleburgh wrote in the Globe and Mail. “No more Jason Kenney lavishing praise on the Dalai Lama and private meetings between His Holiness and Mr. Harper.”

No indeed. Baird, Harper’s new foreign minister, tipped his hand in a Toronto speech before his three-day trip to China. “China is incredibly important to our future prosperity,” he said. “My government gets it and as Canada’s new minister of foreign affairs, I get it.”

Ah. And what about the whole Communist thing? “Even the best of friends can have legitimate differences of opinion,” the minister said.

All during his trip Baird was dogged, over the phone from Ottawa, by reporters for Canada’s Sun newspaper chain, who wanted to know why Baird’s own Conservative party had written a letter of congratulations to the Chinese Communist Party this summer on the occasion of its 90th anniversary.

Good. No government, least of all one that used to trumpet its virtue in snubbing the China regime, should feel comfortable getting cozy now. As long as China denies basic rights to its people, Canada’s relationship with China should not be business as usual. But it’s also fair to ask why the Harper government has executed this about-face, and to acknowledge that the trend line has been toward greater realism.

First, the Harper government makes no attempt to hide its turn toward China. The change in attitude dates from Harper’s second electoral mandate, not from Baird’s appointment as foreign minister. The government’s own Foreign Affairs website says that after experiencing “some obstacles in recent years,” the “governments of both countries have taken steps to reaffirm to each other the value that each places on the relationship.” An “active program of bilateral dialogues and high-level visits” includes, “in particular, Prime Minister Harper’s December 2009 visit to China.”

Harper’s is hardly the only Western government to change its tune on China. When I was in Berlin in 2007, there was chaos at the foreign department because Angela Merkel’s decision to meet the Dalai Lama had led China to cancel a bunch of meetings with the Germans. That was pure Merkel, a child of Communist East Germany with a visceral disdain for the ideology.

And since 2007? Merkel has gotten over it. She has not met again with the Dalai Lama, but she took a bunch of German business leaders to Beijing a year ago, and again last month. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been in Berlin five times. Merkel made a few remarks at a news conference about human rights. Wen made a show of being unable to hear the translation. Merkel will be back anyway, as Germany continues to become a key Chinese trade partner.

Harper, meanwhile, waited until the end of 2009 to visit China. Baird’s trip this month lays the groundwork for a return visit by the Prime Minister. So far the meetings have produced grand-sounding pronouncements. When President Hu Jintao was in Ottawa last June, he announced Canada and China had set a goal of doubling bilateral trade volume to $60 billion in five years, by 2015. But here’s the thing: China’s trade with the rest of the world more than doubles every five years. Its trade with the U.S. has more than doubled in most recent five-year periods (the 2008 recession slowed that momentum temporarily). Harper’s 2015 amounts to a promise to fall no further behind. It is, incidentally, eerily similar to an announcement Jean Chrétien made in 2003, when he vowed Canada’s trade with China would double by 2010.

Why bother? Here’s another yardstick. Harper’s government is seeking an enhanced trade deal with the European Union. It would be the most ambitious trade agreement since NAFTA. A 2008 study suggested Canada could expect about $12 billion in benefits from such a deal with Europe. Even without a formal enhanced-trade agreement, there are more incremental dollars for Canada in China than in Europe.

And can Chinese dissidents go hang in the meantime? I put the question to one Conservative government source, who pointed out that Chinese dissidents did not experience a human-rights renaissance while Harper was playing tough. “Part of their psyche is that they don’t care whether we make a stink over some of this stuff.” Baird, this source said, “is trying to demonstrate that he can walk and chew gum on this file.”

Jean Chrétien couldn’t have put it any better. But there is no necessary conflict between building a trade relationship and hoping China’s people see a better day soon.

Last autumn, Harper visited Ukraine even though that country’s current president, Viktor Yanukovych, was the bad guy in the 2004 Orange Revolution and remains too cozy with Moscow. Here, too, Harper was acknowledging that some countries matter to Canada no matter who is running them today.

A million Ukrainian Canadians help ensure Ukraine matters here, of course. There are even more Chinese Canadians, and in relations with China they prefer engagement to isolation. It took a while for Harper’s values to align with his interests, but they are aligning in the right way, and China is patient.