Getting it wrong on China, Canada and trade

If prime ministers were wrong, when were they wrong?

Perhaps Canadian prime ministers, both Liberal and Conservative, have been wrong about China, Canada and trade.

But when were they wrong?

I’ve criticized both former Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper and present Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for saying critical or provocative things to or about China, and thereby undermining efforts to build a bigger and richer trading relationship with the rapidly rising people, power and market. Trudeau offended the Chinese, probably unintentionally, early in his tenure by talking about human and environmental rights while trying to expand trade with China. The Chinese didn’t react well. He’s backed off that talk, and trade went better – until . . .  Well, we all know what’s happened.

Early in his reign, Harper seemed to be more concerned with China’s human rights failings and abuses than he did with expanding trade. He said things like this:

“I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide. We do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out our values, our beliefs in democracy, freedom and human rights. They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

I recall thinking that was recklessly self-righteous, considering how much Canadians such as farmers depended on expanding access to markets like China’s. As his time as PM lengthened, he dialled-down the rhetoric and seemed more warm and open to the notion of being friendly with China, at least in terms of business and trade. I thought that was good – especially for farmers.

When Trudeau told the Chinese that he wanted to forge a trade deal that respected “Canadian values” like labour, environmental and women’s rights, the Chinese treated him like most of us treat telemarketers. They slammed down the phone – on the PM’s hands. That was it for a few months, until he too learned to hold his tongue about China’s sins, crimes and failings.

I thought his reticence since then was a good thing too.

But now I wonder. Were we wrong to be so desperate for China market access that we would act craven in the face of an authoritarian power, driven by hope, greed, fear, naive optimism and cynical insouciance? Have we betrayed something about ourselves in doing so, in chasing after the China growth story? How does China look at that? Does such kowtowing bring respect? It certainly hasn’t seemed to insulate Canada against a draconian overreaction to Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, on a legitimate U.S. extradition request.

Maybe it’s made Canada seem like an easy mark for intimidation. Chinese displeasure has silenced Canada on core principles. What else will it not bend to? Have we encouraged China to take a run at us.

The canola blockade is perhaps a test of how far China can push Canada. How’s it working out?

Farmers are suffering, but – perhaps oddly – the Canadian public and political class hasn’t turtled, kowtowed, thrown in the towel. For all the damage being done, Canadians seem to be growing angry rather than compliant with Chinese demands. The Trudeau government hasn’t offered China any deals (as far as we know) and both Conservatives and NDP have been saying tougher things about China than was typical a few months ago. This morning Elizabeth May, the Green Party leader, was highlighting the need to overhaul Canada’s approach to China, and not in a let’s-get-submissive way.

I’m wondering if Canadians are beginning to feel like we’ve compromised too much with China, and if we don’t need to pull back a bit and recommit to our principles. If farmers are bearing the cost for this, perhaps paying them compensation is better than begging the Chinese to like us again.

I’m not sure what I think. I tend to believe we shouldn’t push our values into other nations’ faces, but rather stand as a positive example for them and their peoples of how democracy and human rights can create a just and prosperous society. But now I’m not so sure. Maybe the two can’t be divorced.

So perhaps our prime ministers have erred in dealing with China, but erred in backing away from proclaiming our support for democratic and human rights rather than from daring to offend those we yearn to do more business with.

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