It’s possible to criticize China on human rights and do business with it
CHARLIE GILLIS,ANDREA MANDEL CAMPBELLMarch52007
GO ON, TAKE A STAND
It’s possible to criticize China on human rights and do business with it
ANDREA MANDEL CAMPBELL
Stephen Harper has his critics, and many of them would presumably be pleased to teach him a lesson. But few fantacize as graphically about it as Neil Tate, a pioneer of Western banking in China who currently advises BMO on its Asian operations. “We need to tie him up, blindfold him and drop him into the middle of Shanghai,” says Tate, who spent 25 years in China. “Then he could see what’s going on over there.” Frustrated by what he sees as the PM’s chronic parochialism toward an emerging Asian superpower, Tate believes the Conservative government’s China policy is already costing Canadian companies money. And while his prescription may be unique, his sentiments are not.
With each foray into the labyrinth of ChinaCanada relations, Harper takes another dagger in the back from big business. Like most Canadians, the country’s corporate bigwigs apparently never foresaw a Conservative putting human rights ahead of businss interests where China was concerned. And at times, it seems the issue has upset the natural political order, allying the Tories with the likes of Amnesty International and alienating potential friends like the Canada-China Business Council. Now, both business and the Tories face some intriguing questions: is silence on human rights abuses really the price Canada must pay to get in on the Chinese bonanza? Or were dreams of a Canadian windfall in China, like rumours of Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated?
If both possibilities hang over the Tory party, Harper doesn’t seem especially worried. The Prime Minister has been hewing to a group of hawks in his caucus who see China as a serial abuser of human rights and an irresponsible actor on the world stage. A group of pro-business MPs, led by Industry Minister David Emerson, rose up in resistance, but the hawks prevailed. First, the government accused the Chinese of conducting industrial espionage. Then it awarded honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader who remains the regime’s most influential critic. On both counts Beijing was furious, and Bay Street trembled.
In November, Harper caused another foreign relations stir by taking up the case of a
Muslim-Canadian Uyghur being held by Chinese authorities on accusations of terrorism. When the Prime Minister announced his intention to raise the plight of Huseyin Celil during a planned face-to-face meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao at an economic summit in Vietnam, the Chinese abruptly cancelled the meeting. Hu later relented, but the public toilet where the two leaders finally did trade a few words has served as a metaphor for the state of Sino-Canadian relations in jokes ever since.
For a certain cadre of the country’s business elite, the whole thing is tantamount to wilful sabotage. The Canadian Council of Chief Executives, representing leaders of 149 blue-chip corporations, is demanding that the government change its tack, claiming
that Harper’s methods are going to hurt rather than help the cause of human rights in China. “I’m a believer that the way you influence human rights is not by calling people names or poking a stick in their eye,” says Thomas d’Aquino, the organization’s president. “If a country like China is going to listen to us, it’s important that we be seen as a trusted friend.” D’Aquino is careful to frame his argument in terms of rights rather than money. “We’re not saying change your China policy or we’ll lose contracts.” But there’s no mistaking the interests he represents. Most of the companies whose chiefs sit on the CCCE’s executive have significant operations in China, or plans that hang on the favour of Chinese officials. Its chairman, Paul Demarais, has interests in a company that runs steel mills, power stations and numerous property developments in mainland China. Manulife Financial, whose CEO Dominic D’Alessandro also sits on the CCCE executive, has partnered with a state-owned Chinese company in the rapidly expanding insurance sector. SNC Lavalin, the Montreal-based engineering and construction giant, has stakes in two major highway projects.
But for all the clout on the corporate side
of the debate, there is a growing sense in Ottawa that the Tories have found their stride. Two weeks ago, the government went back to the Celil well, strategically leaking news that Harper had cracked the whip on lethargic diplomats in Beijing who failed to attend Celil’s trial. The Prime Minister was “personally displeased,” a highly placed official reported.
At the same time, the government had gotten a taste of the reaction to its policy from a Commons subcommittee. While some witnesses questioned the government’s actions, many applauded its resolve. Overall, it seemed to reflect the debate presumably percolating in Canadians’ minds. If basic human rights— against arbitrary arrest, detention without charge, political imprisonment, the death penalty—aren’t absolute, what is? If treating China with kid gloves will lead to progress on human rights, why have improvements been so maddenly slow? When all is said and done, what is the true risk for Canada in taking a stand?
The last one’s easy to
answer. D’Aquino himself acknowledges a paucity of evidence the Chinese will punish Canadian companies over Harper’s stand by, say, denying firms the licences necessary to open shop. And there is no shortage of countries that have clashed with Beijing, yet whose firms have been welcomed with open arms. One is Denmark, arguably the most vocal critic of Chinese human rights violations. Another is the United States, whose recognition and arming of Taiwan is an enormous sore point with the mainland.
As for existing business, well, there doesn’t seem much to lose. Since the mid-1990s, when the Chrétien government agreed to take its human rights concerns behind closed doors, the proportion of Canadian exports that go
to China has flatlined around one per cent, while foreign direct investment—a measure of Canada’s commercial visibility in Chinastands at a meagre $1 billion, far below comparable countries like Australia.
In the meantime, China’s human rights record remains as shabby as ever. Annual reports by Amnesty itemize an array of abuses, from the random detention of Uyghurs to the overuse ofthe death penalty(l,770 people executed in 2006; another 3,900 sentenced to death, some for non-violent crimes like embezzlement). Provincial or national elections remain a distant dream, while the government has cracked down on media and Internet companies that fail to follow their restrictions.
All told, say observers, China is exposing long-standing flaws in the theory that market liberalization will invariably lead to democratic reforms. “It’s not an automatic thing,”
IF TREATING CHINA WITH KID GLOVES HELPS PROGRESS IN HUMAN RIGHTS, WHY IS PROGRESS SO SLOW?
says Reinhard Heinisch, a political scientist at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied the issue. “It depends on a whole range of factors—the specifics of the regime, the institutions put in place. What China is showing is that markets can function very well without the full catalogue of freedoms we’d expect in the West.”
Similarly, there is no iron-clad law that cozy relations between two countries will lead to mutual enrichment. Charles Burton is a politics professor at Brock University who held several key positions at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing in the 1990s. Looking back, he realizes that Canada was losing market share to the U.S., Europe and Australia even as Jean Chrétien was touring China on trade missions. “Other countries improved their engagement by getting people into China with knowledge of Chinese languages and an understanding of how things work there,” Burton says. “Canada was using its same old system of recruiting generalists and rotating them through.” In short, we lag because we’ve played the trade game badly, from the government on down. Even now, Burton notes, no senior official at Canada’s Beijing embassy possesses the language skills to “call up one of the 430 million cellphones in the country and have an informal conversation.” That may explain why Burton now supports Harper’s outspoken approach—like the Prime Minister, he has trouble seeing the risks. Once a supporter of constructive engagement, Burton personally sat in on five of the socalled “human rights dialogues” where Canada and 11 other countries voiced concerns to China behind closed doors. He now regards the process as a charade. “The dialogues tended to repeat each other, and the Chinese downgraded the level of foreign ministry representation,” he says. At one meeting, he recalls, “the Americans said they were moving from cynicism to despair.”
It’s a view that the business types are bound to run into as they press their case against Harper. If there’s little downside to speaking out, and little upside to clamming up, its pretty hard to justify the latter. So while the likes of the CCCE may see the Conservatives as allies on issues from taxation to training to productivity, China remains the proverbial fly in the ointment. Canadians want profitable trade with the world’s next superpower, but they want a government willing to take a principled stand on human rights. If the sad-sack numbers of Canada’s early forays into the Middle Kingdom are anything to go by, the two are not mutually exclusive. M
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