Skip to main content

Opinion To solve the China puzzle, Canada must lift its game

David Mulroney is president of the University of St. Michael's College and a former ambassador to China

Canadians have been treated to a flurry of discussions about our relationship with China lately, but we're a long way from truly addressing what's at stake. Managing our engagement of China is a foreign-policy challenge of unprecedented risk, scope and complexity.

Discussions to date have tended to run along comfortable and familiar lines, as if getting China right simply involves securing better access to its notoriously impenetrable market.

Story continues below advertisement

The government has just completed a round of public consultations about a Canada-China free-trade agreement. And earlier this summer, a panel of experts convened by the Public Policy Forum met in Ottawa to talk about much the same thing.

Afterward, Kevin Lynch and Edward Greenspon, who chaired the meeting, spoke reassuringly about the need for national "conversations" on a range of issues including human rights. But they made it clear that, for them, the issues at the heart of what they describe as Canada's "China puzzle" are economic.

Lu Shaye, China's Ambassador to Canada, offered his own take on our China puzzle. Blunt and slightly tone deaf, like much of Chinese public diplomacy, Mr. Lu was similarly focused on economic issues. He wants us to stop listening to a Canadian media that, according to him, doesn't understand China, abandon our Canadian fixation on human rights and get down to negotiating a free-trade agreement.

Few serious people would deny that our prosperity depends on a smart engagement with China. The problem is that an increasingly assertive, repressive and opaque China has ambitions that transcend trade and investment. Our China puzzle is indeed about economics, but it's also about our security and safeguarding fundamental human rights – including those of Canadian citizens in China.

Australia, which has spent decades in national "conversations" about China, is struggling to understand how it engages a country that is an essential economic partner, but also in some respects an adversary. China is Australia's free-trade partner, but also stands accused of meddling in Australian media and politics. Recent Australian-U.S. naval exercises were shadowed by a Chinese warship.

We might expect that our government would reassure Canadians that no corners will be cut on national security as officials explore closer economic ties with China. But the government's rather cursory review of the takeover of Vancouver high-tech firm Norsat by a Chinese company looks like a case of, well, corner-cutting.

China is also aggressively challenging many of the global norms and values long championed by Canada. Writer and activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for advocating freedoms that Canadians take for granted. That he was imprisoned for this and died without ever enjoying those same basic rights is deeply troubling. So, too, was the relatively muted international response to China's contemptuous treatment of a person who was, like his fellow Nobel laureate Lester Pearson, a person of truly international significance.

Story continues below advertisement

As ambassador, I saw China begin to subject foreigners to the same arbitrary and heavy-handed treatment it metes out to its own citizens. For more than a year, Canadian John Chang, owner of Lulu Island Winery, has been languishing in a Chinese jail, embroiled in a commercial dispute that has mysteriously morphed into a criminal prosecution. What was once viewed as a Canadian success story has become a cautionary tale about the perils of an opaque Chinese legal system. We can expect more of this.

We haven't begun to think through how challenging a more China-centric world will be for us. We need to raise our game significantly, crafting a sophisticated, well-informed and intelligently co-ordinated foreign policy focused on Canadian interests and Canadian values.

We will certainly need capable trade negotiators. But we'll also need to invest in the security assets necessary to block Chinese espionage and interference. We'll need even more consular officials to assist Canadians caught up in a Chinese legal system that always favours the home team. We will need China-savvy Canadian diplomats working with allies and multilateral agencies on approaches to constrain China's worst impulses – while supporting the undeniably good things China does. Above all, we will need the courage to stand up for the values that distinguished Mr. Pearson and Mr. Liu.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter