China, Canada & the U.S.A.

This weekend, the Globe & Mail devoted nearly their entire Saturday newspaper to China. The National Post, its main competitor, has been writing about China for the past week. The trigger may be the proposal of China Minmetals, a state-owned Chinese firm, to buy Noranda, Canada’s largest mining company. But the real issue is something else: it is China and America and Canada’s place in the world.

First, let’s look at what has been said about Minmetals. On Thursday, the Globe interviewed the Chinese Foreign Minister about the deal. The Minister was told that, “several MPs . . . have raised human-rights concerns. Some say the deal should be blocked because of reports that China Minmetals has been linked to the use of forced labor in the Chinese prison gulag”. He replied:

On human rights, I believe, our two peoples have a lot in common.

Liberty, democracy, freedom and whatever, we share a lot. What is democracy? Democracy is a way in which people enjoy their rights according to law. If the Chinese people and government are working in accordance with our constitution and law, why do people in Canada worry about this? I don’t think there is anything to give a reason for those people to worry about China’s human-rights record. Perhaps those people have not read at all the Chinese constitution. Perhaps they have not been to China and also perhaps they don’t know history.

Amazingly, Globe let these claims pass without comment. The Chinese constitution does indeed guarantee many things, among them “freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration”. But the constitution is only paper – history has shown the government does as it pleases. The next day, the Globe followed up with an editorial supporting the sale:

It is certainly true that Beijing is no respecter of civil rights and that its government remains authoritarian, repressive and intolerant. But that does not mean its corporations should be excluded from foreign investment. China is under no international sanctions, it is a member in good standing of the World Trade Organization and it is moving away from the old command-and-control economic model toward one based on market principles. This is a process that needs to be encouraged, as open markets rarely coexist happily with closed political systems.

The paper goes on to suggest that Canada could help improve things, “provided Prime Minister Paul Martin makes it clear that the growing business and trade ties between the two countries will not prevent Canada from speaking out against China’s lack of political freedom and its sorry human-rights record.”

So the Globe stands with James Peterson, Canada’s Minister of International Trade, who’s op-ed piece on the same subject in the same paper (“Asia’s biggest tiger is slipping our grasp”) concludes, “I’m committed working with Canadian business and all levels of government to ensure that we recover lost ground and make new gains in a market critical to Canada’s future prosperity.”

Interestingly enough, the National Post, which as Eric Regularly said in Saturday’s Globe, is “normally a shill for capitalism, has urged the federal government to block the sale of Noranda to the Chinese, citing human rights abuses”. Terence Corcoran writes in Saturday’s Post,

In the context of the Communist leadership’s suppression of rights, denial of freedom and continued militarization, the Minmetals takeover of Noranda is much more than a commercial takeover by another corporation. It is the political takeover of a Canadian corporation.

What is going on here? I would expect the Post to be for the sale and the Globe to be against, yet the opposite is happening – the Post is the one arguing for human rights. And I think I know why. The real issue is something else. More than left vs. right it is the issue that has always defined Canadian politics: our relationship with the United States of America.

We cannot escape the influence of a southern neighbor with ten times our population. Pierre Trudeau tried to balance the pull of the U.S. by building ties to Europe. He failed – today, fully 86% of Canada’s exports are to the United States. Canada is split between those who are pleased with this relationship with the great democracy, and those who are skeptical of and seek independence from American power.

Generally speaking, the National Post is strongly pro-American – from the country and its policies, from Israel to Iraq, from politics to trade. The Globe and Mail, on the other hand, is more skeptical. So when these two take unexpected sides on a debate, it seems likely that some other, more fundamental force is at work than regular left-right politics. What is really being debated here isn’t human rights – it would be arrogant and idealistic in the extreme to suggest Canada can change China – and it isn’t economics.

The real shame is that this is a debate we need to have. History is impossible to predict – just fifteen years ago Americans worried about Japanese dominance – but there is no question that China is becoming a major power. Canada already has close ties through the nine hundred thousand Chinese who have settled here (in the United States, for comparison, there are about two million Chinese). We cannot remake China. Our responsibility is to pursue our own self interest. We have the raw materials they need for growth; there will be an impact whether we sell them commodities or corporations. What are the benefits of entering the Chinese sphere of influence? Will we make money? Will this change our relationship to America? Will our human rights be affected? If we want a say in our own future, we must start discussing these issues honestly now.