Criticism of China makes for strange bedfellows, bringing together voices from all parts of the political spectrum, each with their own particular axe to grind: human rights abuses, Tibetan independence, lack of religious freedom, the harmful impacts of China’s booming industrial economy on the environment, or the deleterious effects of globalization on domestic producers, to name some of the more prominent ones. Everyone seems to have at least one issue that concerns them in which China, home to roughly a quarter of the world’s population, plays a role — usually that of the villain, it has to be said.
With this in mind, it seems that the question then is twofold: what’s the foreign policy of Canada with respect to China relative to the aforementioned issues (many of which, it should be noted are contradictory and mutually exclusive); and what’s the most effective way for Canada to exert whatever influence it may have to help advance those policy objectives?
The first part of the question is too complex to address here, although it can be said that on human rights, for example, according to organizations such as Human Rights Watch, like previous Liberal governments, the Conservatives have been long on rhetoric, but short on action. Probably to the chagrin of such groups, as newish Foreign Affairs Minister, David Emerson actually struck a softer, more conciliatory tone the other week stating that human rights activists and others impatient for change should be more mindful of the progress China has made in lifting millions of people out of poverty. So much for any pretense of the government taking a hard line with China on human rights.
In terms of the environment, Harper has adopted a somewhat antagonistic stance that demands emerging countries like China make the same kind of sacrifices as rich nations before signing on to any meaningful climate change initiative — a position that critics charge unfairly scapegoats China while providing Canada with a convenient excuse to continue doing nothing in terms of emissions reduction.
As for the second part, despite what Jason Kenney says to the contrary, the Harper government has been decidedly stand-offish towards the Communist government without clearly stating what it hopes to accomplish by this route. If whatever the Chinese equivalent of “Kremlin-watching” by CanWest News is to be believed, it seems that the appearance of Chrétien’s criticisms on the front page of the state media’s English-language newspaper should be taken as a “sign that the Chinese government is indeed miffed over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s decision to skip the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Games.”
So should we care? Some people certainly don’t, such as Raphael at Unambiguously Ambidextrous when he writes: “As far as I’m concerned, I’m not even interested in trading with China. Damn the consequences, until they make reforms and bring their human rights record up to snuff.” I’m not sure how representative that is, but I’ve heard similarly hostile sentiments echoed by others. It seems like a rather asinine position to take, if you ask me; one that’s completely unrealistic and counterproductive. I doubt that it’s a position shared by the government, but maybe there’s more than a faint whiff of it in the Prime Minister’s approach.
Personally, I’m considerably more sanguine about China overall than that and prefer instead to look more at the positive side of changes that have taken place in China over the last 30 years. Of course there’s enormous room for improvement on a wide range of issues, but I believe our view of things really needs to be considered within the context of the truly enormous challenges that country is coming to terms with as it undergoes an unprecedented transformation on a scale that in almost every respect is difficult to imagine, let alone fully comprehend.