Canada sells out to China

China, China, China. For Canada, the peaceable kingdom, a cornucopia of precious metals and fossil fuels, is there a more desirable market than the Middle Kingdom?

It was a long, strange trip to Beijing for Stephen Harper, who came to office so reluctant to engage China that he wouldn’t visit there. When he finally did in 2009, the Chinese scolded him for taking too long.

Now the skeptic is the salesman. He gleefully fills his order book while the rapturous Chinese chirp about a free-trade agreement and “a strategic partnership” with Canada.

China’s appetite for our energy and Ottawa’s willingness to accommodate has been well documented by Terry Glavin in these pages. His China is less cuddly than its pandas.

What makes the Conservative romance with China so exquisite is that it’s so mercenary. There was a time, you’ll recall, that the courageous Jason Kenney, then a private member, went to Beijing at some personal risk to support a leading dissident. There was a time the Conservatives offered full-throated support to Taiwan in praise of its progressive democracy. There was a time they embraced the Dalai Lama. They did this out of principle.

Alas, they’ve grown in office. The Conservatives have learned the relationship between what we have and what they want. To that end, these folks don’t stay up at night fretting over the tired old biblical question of how it profits a man if he gains the world but loses his soul.
Their answer: our soul is for sale, and we’ll profit plenty.


Oh, how we utter the platitudes on human rights, as Harper did to an audience in Guangzhou (though not the more important one, in Beijing). Perhaps he does press the more outrageous cases, in private, revisiting his early indignation at one of the world’s most repressive regimes.

But our protests — actually, polite reservations — look like posturing. We speak, they nod, then back to business. For Canada, it’s an astonishing moral blindness in an awakening world at a time spring has become the only political season — where governments fall in the Middle East, where Russians protest Vladimir Putin, where the once loathsome Burma is reforming.

If you really do see human rights as a principle of your foreign policy, as the Conservatives once did, you would re-think your proud boast of “ethical oil.” You would consider less where that oil is produced — here in Canada, a democracy — and consider where it is going — to China, a dictatorship. Assessing the buyer as much as the producer, you would realize that your oil isn’t so “ethical” after all.

Sell it to China, fuelling an unsavory regime, and your oil is as unethical as that which comes from the Saudis and other authoritarians.

If we have persuaded ourselves that China is liberalizing after years of robust growth, consider this: on the last day Harper was in China, Tenzin Choedon, a nun in a monastery in Sichuan Province in the country’s southwest, set herself on fire. She was 18, and she was protesting the repression of Tibet.

Self-immolation is a grotesquerie. It was once the practice of Buddhist monks in South Vietnam. When the shocking picture of the first monk to set himself on fire on June 10, 1963 was flashed around the world, it shook John F. Kennedy, who realized the brutal regime in Saigon was in trouble.
Things have to be pretty desperate to kill yourself this way. To Tibetans, they are. According to reports, 22 Tibetans have set themselves on fire in less than a year.

That young woman in Sichuan was the sixth in the last week. To repeat, while Harper was in China, Tibetan after Tibetan was committing suicide by fire. From Harper, there was no mention of Tibet in China, and likely no mention at home, either.

But as Canada is tied to China as investor and trader, it will hear more about Tibet. What is new is that those martyrs killing themselves in the name of a free Tibet are no longer just monks and nuns; they are ordinary people too.

Asked one Tibetan dissident in exile: “What is so wrong in Tibet that people are resorting to such drastic action?”

The problem of Tibet, which the Chinese invaded in 1959, is that it reflects a regime that cannot come to terms with the problem, which shows no sign of evolving or adjusting to the claims of ethnic minorities as other countries with democratic aspirations do. Four years ago there was unrest in Lhasa; Beijing hasn’t responded.

It may be that Tibet will explode, again, and the Chinese will send in troops, again, to crush an insurrection they will describe as “terrorism.” Senator John McCain, for his part, thinks “a Chinese Spring” is imminent.

If that does happen, we can again contemplate, as we did after Tiananmen Square in 1989, the meaning of friendship with China, now deeper and broader than ever.

Andrew Cohen is a professor of journalism and international affairs at Carleton University. Email: andrewzcohen@yahoo.ca

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