Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Beggars and choosers

In light of his track record on the US-led “war on terrorism” and conservative policies in general, it is rather unusual for me to defend Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. By further involving Canadian troops in the deadly Afghan quagmire and bending over backwards to display Ottawa’s subservience to the US and Israel, Harper and his Cabinet have damaged Canada’s hard-earned image abroad as a peace-loving, law-abiding country worthy of emulation.

One area where Harper deserves some praise, however, is in his policies vis-à-vis China, with whom he has taken a “strong” stance on human rights — at least when compared with his position on allied human rights violators, such as the US and Israel. Harper’s criticism of Beijing’s track record on human rights culminated (or so it seems) with his decision not to attend the Olympic Games in Beijing, which many world leaders had also threatened to boycott amid a crackdown by Chinese security forces in Tibet this summer. While most heads of state have since come back on that decision and ended up attending the Olympics, Harper chose not to, claiming, if perhaps unconvincingly, that he had a “busy” schedule. Given the magnitude of the event and the fact that we have known for years that the Games would be held in August this year, it would have been easy for Harper to make time for Beijing. His decision not to do so cannot but have been meant to send a political message to Beijing.

While the leadership in Beijing has its hands full ensuring the success of the Olympics, the attack on Harper came from unexpected quarters — former Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien, who during his long tenure did his utmost to cozy up to China and reap the financial benefits.

Harper’s “snub,” the former leader said from Quebec City, had damaged Sino-Canadian relations, and by breaking the “bridge” ostensibly built between Ottawa and Beijing when the Liberals were in power, he had put Canadian firms seeking to do business in China at a disadvantage. “We are [now] at the bottom of the ladder in terms of having any influence with China,” he said. “Ask any businessman who has been to China [of late] and he will tell you the same thing.”

Chretien then said that “We do business with Saudi Arabia and they’re not a big democracy,” which rather incongruously implies that Harper’s refusal to attend the Games meant the same thing as not wanting to do business with China.

The problem with his salvo, however, is that while Chretien claims to understand how the Chinese think — “You know, they have a collective memory there that is very important” — it is based on a complete misreading of the Chinese leadership, the Chinese business sector, as well as the ability of world leaders to distinguish between politics and business. If trade relations between countries were predicated on warm political relations, then very few countries nowadays would be doing business with the US, or Israel, Russia or Pakistan — or even China, for that matter. In fact, even the absence of official diplomatic relations, as is the idiosyncratic case of Taiwan, has not prevented it from doing business with others, or from other countries to seek trade relations with it.

While Beijing continues to wield the political stick, the fact remains that it is not about to end trade relations with a G8 country over a prime minister’s failure to show up at a sports event. At most, Beijing will bark, perhaps recall an official in retaliation, but the long-term consequences will, as always, be inconsequential, because China just cannot afford to make them bite. Furthermore, while the Chinese private sector is not entirely independent of the Chinese Communist Party, in recent years it has increasingly gained a voice of its own, and if establishing new business partnerships with Canadian firms is in the best interest of the private sector, company chiefs are not about to abandon those for the sake of politics or allow the CCP to dictate business decisions. Chretien’s understanding of the Chinese business sector is at least 30 years out of date and harkens back to a time when the CCP had complete control over every aspect of the country, including international trade.

In the end, it all boils down to this: The hypocrisy that taints relations between the world and China works both ways. While critics of China’s human rights record can be accused of undermining their argument by continuing to do business with it, China suffers from the same myopia and continues to do business with its critics, even with the US and Taiwan. What this means, therefore, is that the argument that Canada could somehow “lose out” in the Chinese market over “undiplomatic” criticism of Beijing’s domestic policies — as Chretien made clear on Tuesday — has no credibility whatsoever, as I am sure “the businessman who has been to China” in recent years would tell us.

At best, this was Chretien playing politics ahead of a possible election call. At worst, this was a former prime minister who couldn’t even be bothered to criticize a gross violator of human rights, even when he knows that doing so carries little risk.

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