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China’s citizens will want more freedom as economy grows: Harper

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper reviews troops upon arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila Nov. 9, 2012.

CHERYL RAVELO/Reuters

Stephen Harper is predicting China will face a deepening "disconnect" among its citizens who enjoy growing degrees of economic freedom but not political freedom.

"We know that observers have commented on the strains that exist in Chinese society and really I think that what we will see going forward is the increasing disconnect between economic wealth and freedom on the one hand and lack of political freedom on the other," he said in an interview with The Globe and Mail.

He forecast that this would lead to problems for Beijing.

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Mr. Harper's comments come as his government mulls whether to approve a Chinese state oil company's controversial bid for Nexen, a major Canadian petroleum producer with oil sands interests.

The Prime Minister offered up his thoughts on China at the conclusion of a six-day trade mission to India, during which Ottawa pressed New Delhi to move faster on opening its markets to Canadian companies and investors.

The Harper government has warmed up to Beijing in recent years as it became clear Canada needs to tap rapidly-growing emerging economies such as China and India in an effort to diversify trade away from the heavily-indebted United States, a country that Mr. Harper has said he believes will be hamstrung by slow growth.

The Conservatives, however, have recently replied to a call by China to commence free-trade talks by saying they have enough on their plate right now.

China is undergoing a once-in-a-decade leadership change and President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabo are expected to be succeeded by Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang respectively.

Mr. Harper said Friday he can't determine whether this will mean a change of direction for China.

"The honest truth is we don't know," he said.

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"Nothing I've read either publicly or in my confidential briefings has suggested that we really know much about what the change is at this point."

Mr. Harper's statements about a growing frustration among Chinese citizens echo a report last month by a U.S. congressional commission charged with monitoring human rights in China.

"The commission observed a deepening disconnect between the growing demands of the Chinese people and the Chinese government's ability and desire to meet such demands. In a year marked by a major internal political scandal and leadership transition, Chinese officials appeared more concerned with 'maintaining stability' and preserving the status quo than with addressing the grassroots calls for reform," the Congressional-Executive Commission on China said in October 2012.

The Prime Minister added that he believes China could face an internal backlash over fast and deep change the authoritarian regime is imposing on the Asian country, a society being reshaped by economic reform, engineered social change and disruptive infrastructure projects.

"Whereas the Chinese political system can force profound change, rapid change, very quickly, there could be surprises along the way because we don't know whether that change is moving in the same direction as the underlying society," the Prime Minister said.

But Mr. Harper says India and China are changing in very different ways because one is a democracy and the other a one-party state.

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Mr. Harper said India, which still has a heavily protected economy, has to move slowly on reforms because leaders must build political support for changes. This is especially true when New Delhi is ruled by a coalition government, drawing on the support of several parties, as it is now.

But he said he expects the changes that New Delhi eventually enacts will be more enduring and deep because they'll reflect a political consensus reached before taking measures.

"Because of the nature of the Chinese political system, change is occurring much more aggressively and much more rapidly and it's in a much more clear direction than the kinds of change we've seen in India," Mr. Harper said in an interview while he was flying to Manila from Bangalore, India.

"However it's also my judgment that because India is a democratic system, that the changes that happen in India will be much more profound in the society and sustainable over the longer term."

Mr. Harper said he wasn't sure how "surprises" he is anticipating might take shape.

But he talked of strains in Chinese society and an increasing friction within a country where people reap the benefits of market choice in the economy but have few options politically.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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