PUBLISHED : Monday, Sept. 5, 2016

TORONTO—Every time a Canadian prime minister visits China, the media hype leads Canadians to believe that something economically important is going to happen. Not true. Canadian politicians go to China to do politics in Canada.


Mr. and Mrs. Harper in China with panda Er Shun (Photo by Angelo Persichilli)

There are two major issues in dealing with China: human rights and economic trade. If our politicians talk about the economy and ignore the human rights, they are heavily criticized by the media and opposition “for selling out Canadian values.” Conversely, if they talk about human rights, the Chinese don’t talk about the economy and the government is criticized for “jeopardizing Canadian jobs.” Either way, trips to China have no economic impact on our bilateral trade beyond what could be achieved through a normal diplomatic relationship and lower-level bilateral economic missions.

Take one trip to China by former prime minister Jean

Er Shun

Chrétien. It was promoted so much that Marco Polo, by comparison, looked like an illegal immigrant to China. Canadians were led to believe that, after the trip, billions of Canadian goods would flood China. In fact, Chinese exports to Canada increased, but it also increased the trade imbalance against Canada.

It was the same cliché when the Conservative government was in Ottawa: human rights or economy? The fact of the matter is that you can’t do both when you go to China.

I remember during the 2012 trip to China, the most important media issue was the release of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian citizen of Chinese origin who has been in a Chinese prison since 2006. The government, on the other hand, was trying hard to improve trade and worked for a long time just to get an invitation to go there.

Prime minister Stephen Harper was quite forceful during the private meetings with the Chinese authorities about human rights in general, and Mr. Celil in particular. Chinese politicians can handle all kinds of question during private meetings, but react quite rudely if challenged in public. In fact, asked by journalists after the meeting if he had raised Celil’s issue, prime minister Harper said that while in another country he was “not to say anything publicly critical of that country.”

Privately, he strongly attacked Chinese record on human rights, but publicly he stuck to the economic issues.

The Chinese appreciated the Canadian approach and an interesting discussion took place about the economic bilateral relationship. For the first time, Beijing mentioned the need for a free trade agreement with Canada. Our delegation was happy but very discreet about this development (contrary to the Chinese authority that had it on the front page of the local newspaper the morning after).

Mr. Harper was greeted by authorities and Chinese media with the highest honour and the trip was considered a success, at the time. In reality, the only sign of that so-called successful trip was the arrival in Canada of Er Shun and Ji Li, male and female pandas that the Chinese authorities lent to Canada for 10 years (with us paying $1-million a year).

There is no trace of the free trade agreement that the Chinese government heralded in the media or clarity on the future of Mr. Celil.

Still, the trip was successful because the government was able to avoid the trap between economy and human rights.

Now, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is in China and Marco Polo fame is again under attack. Mr. Trudeau told the media that he shared with Chinese leaders “my strong conviction that acceptance of diverse perspectives will strengthen China, just as it has Canada. In a world of rapid change, it is a diversity of ideas, and the free ability to express them, that drives positive change.” Mr. Harper, privately, was much stronger. Still, the results were very foggy, on human rights and the economy.

Aside from some wordy bilateral agreements on cultural exchange and commitments to increase scientific cooperation already prepared before the trip (the so called “deliverables”), Canadians go to China more to score political points at home then to improve the Canadian economy.

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