Mr. Harper goes to Beijing -

Mr. Harper goes to Beijing

Six years after vowing not to sell out to China, the PM is hunting for a deal


China is home to the world’s second-largest economy. It grew by 9.2 per cent in 2001, even as its chief rivals, the United States and the European Union, continued to struggle. As a country that sells things—oil, natural gas, uranium—Canada needs access to Chinese money and markets if it wants to thrive going forward.

That is fact one.

China is run by an undemocratic regime. It spends billions of dollars controlling its own people, often violently, every year and it uses its influence to prop up some of the world’s most violent and unstable dictatorships.

That is fact two.

When Prime Minister Stephen Harper wakes up Wednesday for the first of his four days of meetings in Beijing, these two facts will hang over everything he does. Canada cannot not do business with China. But doing business with China makes many Canadians uneasy. How Harper reconciles this will define his trip, no doubt. But it could also define his foreign policy legacy as prime minister.

At the moment, China sells Canada $4 worth of goods for every $1 we sell them. Given the size of the Chinese market, righting that balance somewhat should be a priority.  At the same time, Canada’s sense of itself rests on some level on the idea that we are a force for good in the world; that we try to use what influence we have to promote human rights and democracy, even it’s not always clear how much influence a mid-level power with goods to sell can or should have in the world beyond the economic.

Maclean’s Political Editor Paul Wells is with the Prime Minister in Beijing. He’ll be filing regularly both during and after the trip. But as Wells laid out Monday, Harper’s guest list makes clear this is a business excursion. CEOs from major manufacturing, transport and resource firms are along for the trip. Others from agriculture and oil-and-gas firms are there as guests of Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz.

On one level, this is very much about oil. Harper has called the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline a national priority. If built, it would pump bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to Kitimat on the B.C. coast and from there onto the Asian—read: Chinese—markets. China’s state-owned Sinopec, which has a large and growing stake in oil sands production, is investing in the pipeline itself and the Chinese no doubt want assurances it’s going to get built, despite local opposition to the project in B.C.

After years as a junior partner in the oil sands, China is now becoming an owner outright. PetroChina will operate the new MacKay River project when it opens in 2014. Sinopec bought Daylight Energy Ltd. for $2.2 billion in December. The Chinese may be seeking more flexibility in how they run those projects, including on the labour end.

Sinopec subsidiaries have been bringing temporary Chinese labour into Alberta for years, with sometimes controversial results. On Monday, Sinopec Shanghai Engineering Company asked the Supreme Court of Canada to throw out charges against it related to the deaths of two Chinese workers in Fort McMurray in 2007. Those same workers, it was later revealed, were having their nominally high wages siphoned by the company in China, seemingly as a way to get around Canadian wage laws.

Which of course brings everything back to the human rights/business dichotomy. Canadian businesses want more access to Chinese markets on better terms. Chinese companies want Canadian resources, and they want to be able to control the production and shipping of them from start to finish. When Stephen Harper first came to power in 2006, he said he didn’t think Canadians wanted him to sell out to China to achieve business ends (or to the “almighty dollar” as he put it at the time.) Whether he can actually do that is what this trip is all about. (That, of course, and pandas.)

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