Following on the heels of US President Barack Obama’s three-day visit to China last month, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper arrived in Beijing today, launching a four-day tour that will also take him to Shanghai and Hong Kong. This is Harper’s first visit to China as prime minister.
Since Harper’s Conservatives assumed office in 2006, Ottawa has taken a harder line on China than did his predecessors Jean Chretien and Paul Martin, both Liberals who actively sought closer ties with China and, to this end, muted their criticism of the regime. In 2006, Ottawa ignored Beijing’s warnings against giving honorary Canadian citizenship to Tibetan leader the Dalai Lama and, a year later, a meeting between Harper and the exiled leader. Harper was also one of a few world leaders who did not attend the opening ceremony for the Olympic Games last year, claiming that he had a “busy schedule” — a decision that many analysts, and Beijing, interpreted as a signal of protest by Ottawa against the Chinese security crackdown that was occurring in Tibet at the time.
It is little wonder, therefore, that the media — and Beijing — would see this month’s visit as an attempt by Harper to mend fences with China, Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the US, with bilateral trade volume reaching about US$35 billion last year.
On Wednesday, The Associated Press’s staff writer Chi Chi Zhang, however, overstated the matter by writing that “Chinese experts are touting [the visit] as a fence-mending trip to repair ties damaged by Ottawa” (my italics). The problem with this sentence is the assumption, as is often the case when it comes to China, that it was the other party that “angered” China with its actions and that it must show contrition for the damage caused to bilateral ties. Here again, China is portrayed as a victim; the ties were damaged by Ottawa. (It also reinforces the image of supplicant versus master that is so prevalent in the Middle Kingdom mentality.)
When academics, reporters and government officials write these things, they tend to deresponsibilize China, as if the governments that offended Beijing (Washington, Canberra, Ottawa, Paris, Taipei) were operating in a vacuum, in the absence of a cause for their actions. In reality, those governments are “angering” Beijing by criticizing its atrocious human rights record, its repression of minorities and religious groups, its crackdowns in Tibet and Xinjiang, its arrest of lawyers and rights activists, its media censorship, as well as its aggressive espionage activities abroad. They also “anger” Beijing by acting according to their values — on their own soil — in meeting individuals such as the Dalai Lama, or in their reluctance to extradite individuals wanted by China (such as Lai Changxing 賴昌星, who in 1999 fled to Canada with his family after China accused him of masterminding a US$6 billion smuggling ring) for fear they might be executed after their return.
It is Beijing, because of all these things, that ultimately is the principal reason why ties have “languished,” as Agence France-Presse described relations between Canada and China. If it didn’t break international law and didn’t repress its people, Ottawa and others would not feel compelled to act in ways that “anger” Beijing.
Ottawa didn’t damage ties with China — Beijing did. It’s as simple as that. No government should ever be criticized, or forced into contrition, for standing up for universal rights and values.