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When China’s Communist overlords sent tanks into Tiananmen Square in 1989, killing thousands of pro-democracy protesters and setting off an international furor, they adopted a simple strategy: they waited it out.
There were sanctions for a while, and top Chinese officials were temporarily treated as pariahs, but the game plan worked. After a few years the outrage cooled, business interests rediscovered their ardour for the country’s vast market and politicians forgot all the brave, defiant words they’d uttered and found new ones extolling the great benefits to be had from forgetting the past.
In Canada it only took five years. In 1994 then-prime minister Jean Chrétien happily organized and led a “Team Canada” trade mission , returning home in triumph to boast of some $9 billion in potential contracts. The premiers who accompanied him had nothing but praise for the great man’s virtues: “I have never seen anything like the respect and affection that Jean Chrétien commands from his peers,” swooned New Brunswick’s Frank McKenna. “The prime minister has just been an absolute delight to work with,” confirmed Manitoba’s Gary Filmon. Ontario’s Bob Rae hailed him as “our leader and captain,” and gave him a Team Canada sweater to prove it.
China’s history of human rights abuse was mentioned, but only perfunctorily, and with great care to avoid upsetting the hosts. A Maclean’s correspondent covering the trip reported: “Chrétien raised the issue so briefly that a Chinese foreign affairs ministry official later insisted it had not come up at all, and Nova Scotia Premier John Savage, who was at the meeting, did not initially recall any mention of the subject.”
Liberals remained enamoured of China right up to the arrival a week or so ago of a letter signed by 19 prominent Canadians urging Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to pay the ransom demanded by Beijing for the release of two Canadians, Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig. Trudeau rejected the plea , a sign that he may at last have grasped the real nature of China’s leadership, and come to appreciate the costs of cozying up to it. For much of his tenure he was keen on negotiating a free trade deal that would entwine Canada’s economy more tightly with China’s, despite its well-documented contempt for human rights and brutal treatment of minorities.
They obviously know this in the National People’s Congress, and are counting on the same craven response to the dismantling of democracy in Hong Kong, which took place without even the bother of Tiananmen-style bloodshed. Britain and Australia may have proposed a path to freedom for frightened Hongkongers, while Canada suspended its extradition treaty, banned the export of military items and hinted at immigration-related measures to come, but the international response has been muted in comparison to Tiananmen.
China can’t have expected anything different. Western leaders have long shown themselves willing to substitute rhetoric for action, and the democratic inconvenience of regular elections means an administration unfriendly to Chinese ambitions may eventually be replaced by a more compliant regime. Beijing’s Communist bosses, meanwhile, don’t have to worry about voters or public opinion interrupting their hold on power.
So brazen has Beijing become that Chinese officials have taken to openly boasting how little they care about foreign opinion. They regularly issue open threats of retaliation against governments that don’t do their bidding. Far from retreating in the face of Washington’s tougher line on relations, there are suggestions Beijing sees advantages in a second term for the Trump administration , given the president’s record of alienating allies and weakening the bonds connecting Western institutions.
Canada, as usual, finds itself in a tenuous position as global power balances shift. Our dedication to soft diplomacy, determined fence-sitting and the avoidance of controversy leaves us ill-placed to exert much in the way of influence. If that wasn’t obvious before, it was made so by the pointed rejection of Trudeau’s campaign for a temporary seat on the United Nations Security Council, in which Canada placed third out of three against countries with a combined population barely a quarter of ours.
Any hope Ottawa has of exerting an impact will require a collective effort with other powers. That doesn’t mean the United Nations, where 53 countries on the UN Human Rights Council — many of them deep in debt to Beijing’s predatory Belt and Road infrastructure scheme — voted to support the crushing of Hong Kong’s rights . Unfortunately, it also excludes the U.S., given the erratic and unreliable nature of President Donald Trump’s approach to affairs. Should Democratic nominee Joe Biden defeat Trump in November the new president is all but certain to try and mend ties with traditional allies, but three and a half years of Trump has done nothing to build faith in Washington as a reliable and trustworthy partner over the long term.
But there are other avenues to consider. Taiwan has long sought closer ties, frustrated mainly by Ottawa’s terror of offending Beijing’s autocrats. Australia, New Zealand and Britain all have similar interests and reason to resist Beijing’s persistent duplicity. The South China Sea is ringed by countries eager to co-operate in frustrating Chinese expansionism; several are members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership with which Ottawa signed a trade deal in 2018. Ottawa has a significant hand to play in areas of immigration, investment, education and agriculture. What is required is the will to play it and a show of initiative. China has betrayed Hong Kong. Canada would be joining that betrayal if it repeats the shoddy performance that followed Tiananmen.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020