Saturday, December 05, 2009

Scoring in China – without prostituting ourselves

John Ibbitson
Scoring in China – without prostituting ourselves

Despite his public mauling by the Chinese Premier, Stephen Harper's trip is a substantive success

Harper vows to promote human rights
Globe editorial: The tardy guest and the human touch

John Ibbitson
Published on Friday, Dec. 04, 2009 6:57PM EST
Last updated on Friday, Dec. 04, 2009 7:19PM EST
Stephen Harper has an unfailing ability to take a weak speech and make it even flatter through delivery, and his address to Chinese and Canadian business leaders Friday evening was no exception. But that's not the point.

The point is that, despite his mauling by Premier Wen Jiabao over the Conservative government's tardy and reluctant recognition of the importance of the China-Canada relationship, the Prime Minister's trip is substantively a success.

The Chinese granted Canada permission to market group tours of Chinese citizens to Canada – a privilege that other nations have long enjoyed, but that our country has been unsuccessfully seeking for a decade. Final agreement came late and was uncertain until the end, according to sources. Clearly, the Chinese knew that the Canadians needed deliverables, and were prepared to grant this one, though not without a good spanking first.

There were a few other accords as well, none of them earth-moving. In sum they appear to reflect a Chinese government willing to re-engage with Canada despite our years of self-imposed exile.

And the past few days demonstrate emphatically that Mr. Harper fully recognizes the vital importance to Canada's economic and geopolitical future of fully engaging with China, at every level, all the time.

“As economic power and human prosperity spreads from West to East, Canada's trade orientation is shifting also,” Mr. Harper said in his speech. “It is clear that in the 21st century, trans-Pacific trade will increasingly fuel our economic growth.”

So it will. But it is easier and more morally satisfying to trade with like-minded democracies such as the United States and Europe. China is not a democracy. It imprisons people for what they say; its judiciary is not to be trusted; it is corrupt.

The challenge for Canadians is to engage with China while not prostituting ourselves. Mr. Harper thought he could chastise the Chinese on human rights while simultaneously fostering trade. But the Chinese government had no intention of playing that game, which is why the diplomatic equivalent of corporal punishment was the price of readmission to the regime's good graces.

How to balance trade and human rights on the China file has baffled every Canadian government. Most just caved, shoving the issue aside. Mr. Harper believes he can promote both.

“Our government believes, and has always believed, that a mutually beneficial economic relationship is not incompatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental values like freedom, human rights and the rule of law,” Mr. Harper said in his speech.

“…We will continue to raise issues of freedom and human rights, be a vocal advocate and an effective partner for human-rights reform, just as we pursue the mutually beneficial economic relationship desired by both our countries.”

Properly handled, this is the approach that all the Western democracies should be taking. The equilibrium of this century depends on helping China manage its growth, as laissez faire capitalism pits staggering urban wealth against grinding rural poverty; as the Middle Kingdom takes its place at the forefront of nations without, as yet, the mechanisms to ensure peace and justice within its borders and without.

Thus far, Mr. Harper has stumbled repeatedly as he seeks his own equilibrium in dealing with the China Question. But he is an intelligent and pragmatic man. He is able to learn.

How well he learns could help determine our prosperity and, in Canada's own quiet way, contribute to peace in the coming time.

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Related Information

Harper vows to promote human rights Friday, Dec. 04, 2009 09:17AM EST
Globe editorial: The tardy guest and the human touch Thursday, Dec. 03, 2009 11:39PM EST
Norman Spector: Harper’s not for kowtowing Friday, Dec. 04, 2009 08:53AM EST
Analysis: Public scolding likely long-planned Friday, Dec. 04, 2009 12:02AM EST
Latest Comments


12/5/2009 12:10:34 AM
Harper cares about human right ? Since when ?

'Harper Knew About Torture In Afghanistan' - NATO Official
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12/5/2009 12:08:06 AM
Harper Personally Directed Torture Cover-Up
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12/5/2009 12:05:32 AM
Harper would do well to mention specific human-rights issues rather than simply saying, "We will raise human-rights issues." For example, he could encourage the Chinese to allow greater freedom of speech, one of the basic freedoms that is in only the earliest stages of development in China. No doubt the Chinese government with its pseudo-newspapers/government-mouthpieces sees this as a fundamental weakness of Western democracies, seeing how they take their cues (e.g. critisism of Harper for "alienating Canada from China") from the CBC, Globe etc. in their own comments and criticisms of Harper. Which is an interesting contrast: Harper can only communicate to Chinese officials, whereas their communication is as much to Canadians and the Canadian media as to Harper, since these have the power in our democracy!

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