Chris Wattie / Reuters
Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivers a speech during a business dinner in Guangzhou, China, on Feb. 10.
Recent public unease over the newly dedicated Norman Bethune monument might be about more than putting hard-earned tax dollars toward commemorating a committed communist. Perhaps all the Twitter trouble and on-screen outcries are indicative of something more fundamental: the anxieties many Canadians have over our nation’s growing relationhips with China.
Currently China is our second-biggest trading partner, up from the number four spot it occupied in 1997. With Foreign Affairs Minister John Baird presently on a tour of Asian countries, our relationship shows few signs of slowing down.
More affiliations with China, however, entails a more earnest evaluation of conscience.
China’s record — past and present — is no secret: 65 million massacred at the hands of Chairman Mao, the continuation of forced abortions, its treatment the people of Tibet, China’s support of North Korea, aggressive posturing in the South China Sea, China’s treatment of prisoners, environmental issues, animal cruelty … The list is seemingly endless.
Even so, Canada must react to China’s rise and the changing global balance of power in an era of continued American decline. Not to mention China’s eagerness to drink up the oil we’re marketing in our guise of “an emerging energy superpower.”
Canada can’t ignore China, clearly. But at the very least, we can aim to have a China policy that is agreeable to Canadians.
Canada should stand strong in those areas in which China’s interests are adverse to its own. Such an approach would recognize China’s failure to respect human rights is a flagrant weakness to her power both at home and abroad. So emphasizing the centrality of human rights to Canadian ideology would seem to be a good way to set the boundaries, within which a rising Chinese power can operate without threatening Canadian interests. Ottawa’s China policy could reject Sun-tzu-style diplomacy, which aims to convince the other side that certain issues are too politically and culturally sensitive to discuss. China, for example, might be reminded that the universality of international human rights is a matter of international law, not opinion.
And, with Prime Minister Harper’s promise this past February that Canada would always be a “vocal advocate” for human rights in China, it appears we will pursue this second approach to relations.
Or will we? Surely a Conservative government spending $2.5-million to erect a memorial to an ally of Chairman Mao cannot jell with the defenders-of-human-rights image.
Unless Canada is taking a page from China’s diplomatic handbook. Chinese diplomacy is psychological. As far back as the third century, the military commander Zhuge Liang sent back an enemy army by opening the city gates and sunning himself on the ramparts; it looked like a trap and frightened away the opposing general. Recall when Mao received Nikita Khrushchev in his private pool, forcing the Soviet leader, who could not swim, to negotiate in water wings.
It’s possible Canada is staking out a psychological position in this new era of enhanced engagement with China. By commemorating Canadian-born Norman Bethune, who is a household name and heroic martyr in China (where the public is treated to a rich diet of nationalistic sentiment), Canada might emulate Chinese strategy, rather than yield to it. Perhaps Treasury Board President Tony Clement championing the monument wasn’t so shameful as it was strategic. Much will depend on what Canada gets back in return. Increased access to Chinese markets will be a good thing for Canada. But probably not enough to convince our leery public that the gesture was worth the price.