The China of 2020 is a gruesome state-capitalist autocracy, just as it was in 2015 and in 2018. The Chinese Communist Party’s boot is still on the necks of the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Bhuddists of Tibet and China’s human rights defenders.
You have to hand it to Foreign Affairs Minister François-Philippe Champagne. Among several of Justin Trudeau’s cabinet ministers who have demonstrated exemplary talent in the trick of speaking at length on a particular subject without revealing anything of substance, Champagne has elevated the cunning practice into an art form.
The point is to give the impression that something is being done, some new action is being taken, or some policy is under close consideration and will be imminently revealed, when in fact nothing is being done, and there’s nothing new, and nothing is in the offing – at least nothing you want anybody to know about.
You’ll need a particular adroitness in the sleight of hand that’s required to pull it off, though, because any close scrutiny could cause the whole gambit to vanish into thin air. That’s why Champagne was taking particular pains this week, during his appearance before the House of Commons’ Special Committee on Canada-China Relations, to avoid and deflect any close scrutiny of the shambles that has become of his government’s unrequited affections for Xi Jinping’s China.
It is only because Trudeau’s Liberals are in a minority in the House of Commons that the committee was established in the first place. Last December, the House of Commons voted 171-148 to get the committee going, over the Liberals’ objections. It was also last December that Champagne promised a new “framework” in Canada-China relations.
“I think we have to establish, and that will be my responsibility, with Canadian civil society, with business people … a framework in which we can have a relationship with China where the interests of Canada stand out, where the fundamental principles, the values will be present.”
What Champagne meant by that was not exactly crystal clear.
Then, last July, also on the subject of China policy, Champagne told the Toronto Star: “We need a new framework.” He elaborated that the “framework” would have “three cornerstones,” which he enumerated as “very clear rules and standards that will frame that relationship; Canadian interests to frame that relationship; and values and principles including human rights.”
Whatever that might mean.
Then this week, Champagne told the House of Commons China committee that the government has already adopted a new framework for dealing with China. kind of, because it’s evolving, because China’s conduct is evolving. But it’s a three-pronged framework involving cooperation over things like climate change, competition in trade, and Canada’s ongoing interest in Beijing’s human rights transgressions.
This is in fact the old framework, going back years. Even so, “the China of 2020 is not the China of 2015 or even the China of 2018,” Champagne said. This is where the sleight of hand comes into it.
The China of 2020 is a gruesome state-capitalist autocracy, just as it was in 2015 and in 2018. It was a military-industrial complex masquerading as a nation state in 2015, and in 2018. The China of 2020 is the same. The Chinese Communist Party’s boot is still on the necks of the Muslim Uighurs of Xinjiang and the Bhuddists of Tibet and China’s human rights defenders and dissidents, just as it was in 2015 and in 2018.
One thing that has changed is that Xi jinping has noticed that he can get away with it. He can tear up the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a solemn treaty registered with the United Nations, and abolish the autonomy of Hong Kong and the liberty of Hongkongers. He can annex the South China Sea. Nothing comes of it.
It’s coming up to two years since Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor were abducted in a hostage-diplomacy retaliation against Canada for acting on a U.S Justice Department extradition request to hand over the Huawei billionaire heiress Meng Wanzhou to face fraud and conspiracy charges. In 2015, the Canadians Kevin and Julia Garratt were languishing in a Chinese prison after being abducted in retaliation against Canada for acting on a U.S. extradition request to hand over Su Bin, a Chinese national wanted on charges of stealing U.S. military data.
It was only three years ago that Justin Trudeau was boasting about his intention to have Canada usher China into its first free-trade agreement with a G7 country. It would be an historic, world-changing act that Trudeau described this way: “I know that as we look to building a better future for the entire world, the friendship between Canada and China will play an important role in setting the tone and the approach that will characterize the 21st century.”
The Beijing regime was sufficiently pleased with this sort of acquiescence and brown-nosing that it released the Garrratts. While Trudeau and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang hammed it up in Montreal Canadiens jerseys on the ice at the Bell Centre in Montreal, Xi was embarking on a full and final assault on what little remained of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms. The very day that the imprisoned human rights activist and Nobel Peace laureate Liu Xiaobo breathed his last dying breath in 2017, governor general David Johnston was smiling for the cameras, taking tea with Xi Jinping in Beijing.
The main thing that has changed since 2015 and 2018 is that the revulsion of ordinary Canadians with these sleazy goings-on has made the Trudeau government’s embrace of Xi’s China an embarrassment, a disgrace and a crippling liability. The latest public opinion polling, from the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, shows that only seven per cent of Canadians have a positive view of the Beijing regime.
So we’re all left to hope that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden can lead the liberal-democratic world into some sort of consensus about how to deal with the increasingly belligerent Chinese Communist Party, and that Canada will at least quietly go along. In the meantime, don’t expect any leadership from the federal government, where nothing is being done, there’s nothing new, and nothing is in the offing – at least nothing the Trudeau government wants anybody to know about.
Terry Glavin is an author and journalist.