Political change will be spurred from bottom, not top, in China: Harper

MANILA, Philippines - The people of China, not its leadership, will be the ones to fuel democratic reform in that country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Saturday.

MANILA, Philippines – The people of China, not its leadership, will be the ones to fuel democratic reform in that country, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Saturday.

Harper was commenting on the upcoming change of leadership in Beijing, where both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao are set to hand over the reins to a younger generation.

The world is trying to assess what the shift means. Likely not much, Harper said.

“I would say that at this point, our assessment is probably that it’s more continuity than change, but one will be examining that carefully,” Harper told reporters at a joint news conference with Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

“Of course part of our engagement with China…involves the promotion of our basic values, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, and I do believe as prosperity grows in countries, pressures and expectations on those matters among the populations inevitably increase.”

The Philippines is a country that has seen transformative change with the arrival of a new leader. Aquino has led an aggressive anti-corruption campaign aimed at making his country more attractive for trade and investment. But he’s also taken steps to protect the nation’s environment and resources by placing a moratorium on new mining contracts while drafting reforms to the system.

And he has taken action to address internal security concerns by recently forging a pact with a Muslim minority seeking its own autonomous region.

Harper is the first G8 leader to visit Aquino since he took office in 2010, and the first Canadian prime minister to visit the Philippines since 1997. The two countries are hoping to boost bilateral trade, which is currently a modest $1.5 billion annually.

“Now, the significance of the visit is that we keep saying that the Philippines is open for business under new management,” Aquino told reporters.

“And I think, it’s a recognition of the change of atmosphere in the Philippines that we are honoured by the presence of the Honourable Prime Minister and his delegation. We do see increased commercial trade ties between our countries. Things that hindered the development of those ties in the past, under new management it will cease to exist.”

The Philippines has become the biggest source of immigration to Canada, and Tagalog the fastest growing language.

Some in the Filipino-Canadian community had hoped that Harper would address the labour issues faced by caregivers and other foreign temporary workers who come to work in Canada. With the workers entirely dependent on sponsoring employers for their contracts, the concern is that labour abuses go unreported.

Harper did not mention those issues in his remarks, but Aquino said the subject was raised during their meetings Saturday at the Malacanan Palace.

“Overseas Filipinos are Canada’s largest source of migrant workers. It is only right that our countries work together in order to better guarantee the protection and welfare of our Filipino migrant workers and to ensure that the labour requirements of Canada are met,” Aquino said.

Canada announced it would spend $15.5 million over four years to support job training of young people in the Philippines as well as help streamline the regulations around infrastructure projects.

Harper had the opportunity to take in some of downtown Manila, taking part in a wreath-laying at a monument to nationalist hero Jose Rizal, and also touring the Spanish fortress in the old part of town.

The prime minister had taken some heat for transporting armoured vehicles via CF-18 to India earlier in the week.

In the Philippines he’s used cars provided by the local government — and on Saturday afternoon took a quick ride in a “Jeepney,” the colourful jitneys that transport Filipinos from place to place. The vehicles are a post-war phenomenon — former U.S. military jeeps that were stretched and refurbished to be able to hold a dozen or more passengers.