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Canada: C'mon, Mr. Chrétien, our voice on China does matter

August 24, 2008

Marcus Gee, mgee@globeandmail.com
Report On Business
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
August 21, 2008

It's unfair for the Conservatives to suggest that former prime
minister Jean Chrétien was merely trying to feather his own nest when
he attacked Prime Minister Stephen Harper's China policy this week.
Long before Mr. Chrétien was jetting off to Beijing to advise
well-heeled clients about doing business with China, he believed it
was foolish to lecture the Chinese about human rights. His views on
China are consistent - and consistently misguided.

Way back in 1994, Mr. Chrétien shared his strong views about China
with Canadians. "I'm the prime minister of a country of 28 million
people," he said then about meeting Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. "He's
the president of a country with 1.2 billion. I'm not allowed to tell
the premier of Saskatchewan or Quebec what to do. Am I supposed to
tell the president of China what to do?"

Speaking to the Canadian Bar Association on Monday, he chose very
similar words when he said, "You want me to tell the president of a
country of 1.3 billion people you should do this and do that, but I
don't dare to say what to do to the premier of Saskatchewan? You have
to put things in perspective."

No great harm in that. Mr. Chrétien knows a good laugh line, bless
him, and if it worked in 1994, why not use it in 2008? You could even
say it's an argument that improves with age. China has added about
100 million people since then, so we're even punier by comparison.

But is it really so futile to speak up about the denial of basic
human rights in China? Canada may not be the world's heaviest hitter,
but it's not Togo, either. A member of the Group of Seven, it has the
world's ninth-biggest economy. A reputation for fair dealing has made
us a respected voice in the world - when we choose to speak.

Canada spoke up about racism in South Africa and played a leading
role in ending apartheid. Canada speaks out today about injustice in
Burma and Zimbabwe. Canadians are fighting and dying for human rights
in Afghanistan.

It shouldn't make any difference that China is the world's most
populous country. If anything, Ottawa should speak even louder,
because more is at stake.

During the Cold War, Canada spoke up for dissidents in the Soviet
Union despite its vastly superior size and power. Many said that it
was a waste of time lecturing the Soviets, that it would only make
them dig in their heels. In fact, dissidents said later that it made
an immense difference, both to their morale and physical condition.
More than a few escaped the Gulag because the free world protested.
In time, those protests helped undermine and eventually bring down
the Soviet regime.

Though China may be powerful, proud and prickly, it is not impervious
to outside pressure, either. Why else does Beijing sometimes release
dissidents before Chinese leaders visit Washington or foreign leaders
come to China? The Chinese care a lot about their image. The
$40-billion public-relations exercise now under way in Beijing is
proof of that. As a nation whose economic miracle rests on trade,
China needs the world as much as the world needs China.

Will raising human rights in Beijing destroy our trading relationship
with this new economic force?

Canadians doing business in China certainly think so. No doubt,
they've been filling Mr. Chrétien's ear about how Mr. Harper's
slightly less craven approach to China has queered the pitch. Mr.
Chrétien even says Canada has been "blackballed" by the Chinese.

All because Mr. Harper declined to attend an oversized track meet in
Beijing? Or because Parliament (not the Harper government) made the
internationally admired Dalai Lama an honorary citizen? As the
Conservatives point out, Conservative ministers have visited China no
less than 14 times. Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson was just
there, smoothing ruffled Chinese feathers and remarking that China
has come "a long, long way."

Should we stay silent about our most basic beliefs because Beijing
feels slighted? Let's recognize this for the game that it is.
Whenever anyone says a word about human rights, Beijing puts on a
huff, hoping that fear of losing contracts and trade will gag the
critics. One country is played off against the other, so they end up
falling over each other to stay in favour. It is an unsavoury
business, and Canada should have no part of it.

Notwithstanding Mr. Chrétien's "poor little Canada" line, our voice
matters. We should raise it whenever we can.
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