Chinese Communist Party

Canada must be aware of the Chinese Communist Party's ulterior motives before committing to a bilateral free trade-deal, writes Peter Layton.

By Peter Layton, Dec. 7, 2017

Canada will seek a free trade agreement with China. It does not look likely to happen during Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to China this week – but it seems to be only a matter of time.

But Canadians should not ignore the role (and attendant insecurities) of the Chinese Communist Party in pursuit of such a deal. The Party addresses these insecurities internationally through carefully focused economic statecraft – and it is into this that Canada’s future free trade agreement fits.

The Party runs China and is deeply embedded in Chinese society. Despite its success in modernizing China, as is normal for authoritarian regimes, the Party continuously fears for its own survival from internal forces.

The Party continuously fears for its own survival from internal forces.

Reflecting these worries of being overthrown from within, today’s Party has decisively clamped down on civil society, domestic dissents, local human rights lawyers, artists and cultural groups, Internet access and usage, media censorship, and foreign non-governmental organizations.

In a move reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984, the Party is now developing the Social Credit System that will monitor and rate all 1.3 billion citizens.

At the same time, Chinese international tourism is booming. In 2015 Chinese took 128 million trips abroad; 60% in the 18-34 age group.  And therein lies a glimpse of the Party’s mounting problems.

Safety for the Party means it sees an imperative to control its environment – and that is now spreading beyond the domestic to the international. With a large Chinese migrant population, Australia (and undoubtedly Canada) has become to some extent included in China’s domestic gaze.

Based on Australia’s experience, the Party’s insecurities have some broad implications for a future Canada-China free trade agreement.

Firstly, China builds influence through economic statecraft. With more economic linkages, more people in the target country will benefit from China. The Chinese Communist Party expects that these people will then be grateful.

The utility of its economic heft lies behind China’s strong preference for bilateral economic agreements rather than multilateral ones.

Secondly, vulnerabilities in the targeted country can then be purposefully exploited if international relations hit some turbulence. Several countries have had Chinese trade sanctions applied, including cutting tourism when they took foreign policy stances that the Party disagreed with. The utility of its economic heft lies behind China’s strong preference for bilateral economic agreements rather than multilateral ones.

Thirdly, the Party actively seeks control of Chinese nationals and migrants overseas by capturing local associations, friendship societies and Chinese-language media, and by manipulating people with family remaining in China.

Fourthly, many Chinese students are funded by the Party-State with explicit (and understandable) economic incentives to return home after their studies finish. Academic institutions are at times reminded that their continuing cash flow depends upon Chinese students not being exposed to harmful perspectives.

A future free trade agreement will help China undertake these various integrated activities across Canada.  The principal way to manage the inherent risks is to build resilience by having diverse international trade relations.

Such a concept lay behind the annoyance felt by several Asia-Pacific nations towards Trudeau’s actions over the multilateral TPP free trade agreement.

China is rapidly becoming the largest single economy in the global market and is actively shaping it. The emerging era of globalization with Chinese characteristics appears to mean that all of us will become ‘part’ of China to varying or lesser degrees.

The age of the Middle Kingdom lies before us. Caveat emptor; let the buyer beware.

Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia. He is one of the authors of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute’s The Dragon at the Door series of articles. This op-ed is a shortened version of that article.

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