Chinese Communist Party

Beijing's refusal of Prime Minister Trudeau's China strategy signals the end of an era and the need for a new method of handling Canada-China relations, writes Charles Burton.   

By Charles Burton, Dec. 13, 2017

Besides skewering Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s China strategy, Beijing’s gruff refusal last week to factor labour, gender or environmental rights into free trade talks likely marks Canada’s last gasp in a futile, decades-long effort to engage China in global institutions on Western terms.

In the early 1980s, after “Red China” abandoned its Maoist revolutionary agenda to pursue strength and prosperity through international trade, Canada began transferring hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars to China’s post-Mao régime through the Canadian International Development Agency, the World Bank and other United Nations’ agencies.

Basically, China would name a request and Canada signed a cheque. We paid for feasibility studies for the Three Gorges Dam, we sold China CANDU nuclear reactors on highly favourable terms, we funded projects to improve the quality of Chinese wheat and pork production. Most importantly, we paid for Chinese scientists, engineers and technicians to come to Canada to acquire Canadian advanced technologies.

Prime ministers from Jean Chrétien on claimed goodwill would eventually lead to China’s democratization and implementation of rule of law.

These programs were always characterized as “exchanges,” but the money was all Canadian, with nothing given back beyond duck dinners and Great Wall tourism.

Aside from the moral missionary nature of it all, prime ministers from Jean Chrétien on also claimed this goodwill would eventually lead to China’s democratization and implementation of rule of law. And when that happened, Canada would engage in highly productive fair trade in a huge new market, building our prosperity on China’s rise. To this end, Chrétien led his memorable “Team Canada” trade missions to China.

In hindsight, we see that any economic benefits were mostly limited to a few large Canadian companies with the sophistication to navigate complex relationships with Chinese Communist business networks. Meanwhile, back home, untold thousands of Canadian workers would lose solid union jobs to China’s “opening and reform.”

After the failed 1989 Tiananmen democracy movement led to massive repression, pressure grew for the federal government to emphasize “human rights, democratization and good governance” in its aid-funded China programming. CIDA’s Chinese counterpart, the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade, reluctantly accepted this as a cost of keeping Canada’s technology transfer funds flowing. So, China agreed to loosely structured programs designed to turn its National People’s Congress into a democratic parliament, to train judges for some future independent judiciary, to encourage citizen activism on social issues, to raise awareness of gender rights, et cetera. We began a “confidential” government-to-government human rights dialogue; China even signed the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, promising to set the stage for a free press, democratic elections and protection of indigenous and minority rights.

It was all lip service. Politicians involved from both countries knew that these were public relations exercises intended to soothe Canadians’ human rights concerns.

One would have to be naïve to believe that legitimate labour, gender or environmental reforms could be incorporated into a trade deal with a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship.

Last week, Ottawa’s cynicism with regard to appeasing Canadians on Chinese rights and freedoms did play out again. One would have to be naïve to believe that legitimate labour, gender or environmental reforms could be incorporated into a trade deal with a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. This is a nation where Stalin is still revered as a significant forefather of Chinese Communism under current President Xi Jinping — with whom our prime minister dined just days ago.

It seems the PMO assumed the Chinese premier would sign a joint statement referencing labour, gender and environment rights, while Justin Trudeau flew home Chamberlain-like to celebrate his squaring the circle on the conundrum of trade versus protecting Canadian values in Canada's China strategy. And by the time negotiations were complete some years hence, any labour, gender and environment clauses would have been relegated to irrelevant statements of principles with no binding effect.

But, evidently unknown to Mr. Trudeau and his advisers, General-Secretary Xi Jinping made it crystal clear at the October Communist Party Congress that it was his predecessors’ pandering to “western bourgeois false ideologies” that had led to their “lack of drive, incompetence, disengagement from the people, inaction, and corruption.”

The days of Chinese lip service to Canadian wishes have definitely come to an end, but as one era ends, a new one begins. When Canada’s “progressive trade agenda” died in the Great Hall of the People last week, it opened an opportunity for a serious, non-partisan re-think of how Canada should manage our role in China’s comprehensive rise to power in the years and decades ahead.

Charles Burton is a co-author of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute's Dragon at the Door essay series. He is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and a former Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing.