Canada’s relations with China have long been a curious mix of enthusiasm and wariness. Geography and culture were obvious barriers to the creation of close and intimate relations between the two countries. To these were added politics when China adopted a Communist form of government while Canada remained resolutely wed to western capitalism. And yet despite these obstacles, Canada and China have pursued foreign policies that included each other in their calculations of national interest, and this to the advantage of both.
The first substantial contacts between Canadians and Chinese occurred more than 100 years ago. At that time, the Catholic Church and a variety of Protestant churches came to see China as fertile ground for Christian missionary activity. Hundreds of Canadian missionaries went to China and established themselves there. For the most part they chose to inhabit fairly poor and remote towns and villages. There they not only preached the gospel but also built and staffed schools and clinics. Their efforts were warmly welcomed by the local people. The missionaries in turn sent back reports to their churches in which they praised the hospitality and intelligence of the Chinese. The only cloud on this happy horizon was the sentiment of some Chinese nationalists that the missionaries were subverting Chinese culture by injecting a foreign religion into the country. This sentiment came to the fore in a particularly virulent form during the Boxer Rebellion of 1898 when hundreds of Christian missionaries and their Chinese converts were killed.
In the 1870s, there occurred another movement of people in the opposite direction. This involved the importation of Chinese “coolie labourers” to work on railway construction in Canada. These labourers were more often than not poorly paid and entrusted with the most dangerous jobs. Their presence here nevertheless produced a backlash on the part of British Columbian politicians and labour unions. They claimed that the Chinese represented unfair competition to local workers in search for employment. The Canadian government succumbed to the pressure emanating from British Columbia and in 1885 imposed a poll tax of $50 on all Chinese immigrants. The amount of that tax rose to $100 in 1900 and to $500 in 1904. In 1923, the Canadian government adopted a new act aimed at curtailing all Chinese immigration. These highly discriminatory actions remain part of the historical record of Canadian-Chinese relations.
A somewhat more positive note was struck in the late 1930s. At the time, the Chinese Communists were engaged in a long military struggle against both Japanese invaders and Chinese nationalists. They suffered heavy casualties and had only the most primitive medical facilities to deal with them. Suddenly there appeared on the scene a Canadian thoracic surgeon by the name of Norman Bethune. For two years, Dr. Bethune treated the wounded Communists and gained their long-lasting gratitude, including that of their leader, Mao Zedong. Mao eventually penned a tribute entitled “In Memory of Norman Bethune” that became required reading during China’s cultural revolution. Bethune remains a revered figure in China to this day. (Over the years I had numerous contacts with Chinese diplomats. In conversations with Canadians, they invariably brought up the name of Norman Bethune.)
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, relations took a turn for the worse. The Canadian government, in part in deference to the wishes of the United States, refused to recognize the new Communist government in Beijing. It continued to recognize the exiled Chinese government in Taiwan and for 20 years voted to deny the admission of Communist China to the United Nations. For a period of nearly three years starting in 1950, the two countries also became active enemies in the Korean War, when the Chinese sent up to three million soldiers to fight on the side of the North Koreans. This was probably the lowest of low points in the bilateral relationship.
Thereafter relations were to improve significantly. In 1959, the Canadian minister of agriculture, Alvin Hamilton, visited China on what was essentially a commercial mission. From this mission, there flowed a long series of agreements for the sale of Canadian wheat to China. At the same time, a number of leading Canadian industrialists and bankers also visited China and came home with glowing reports in which they strongly recommended that Canada should officially recognize the government in Beijing. That recognition did not, however, occur until 1970, when the government of Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau finally established full diplomatic relations with the government of the People’s Republic of China. This was all topped off by Trudeau’s official visit to China in 1973, the first by a Canadian prime minister, in the course of which he held very friendly conversations with Mao Zedung, Chou Enlai and Deng Xiao Ping. The stage was thus set for the pursuit of an amicable and productive relationship with China.
The government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney built on the foundations laid by the Trudeau government. The number of ministerial visits to China increased, as did the number of contacts and contracts between Canadian and Chinese firms. All of that activity came to an abrupt halt, however, in 1989 at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in the course of which Chinese soldiers killed hundreds of unarmed demonstrators. Canada joined in the almost universal condemnation of the actions of the Chinese authorities and suspended all official contacts with the Chinese government.
Things began to pick up once again in the mid-1990s. The passage of time tended to blur memories of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and China was beginning to show the results of the economic reforms introduced by Deng Xiao Ping. The Chinese economy began to grow by leaps and bounds, and one country after another took note and began the process of actively culminating China in pursuit of economic advantage. Canada was no exception. The government of Prime Minister Jean Chretien mounted a major “Team Canada” mission to China. On that mission, the prime minister was accompanied by most of the provincial premiers, by several cabinet ministers and by some 300 Canadian business leaders. Although many of the memoranda of understanding signed during his visit did not pan out, the symbolism of the visit was what mattered. Canada and China were once again on the path to building a solid economic relationship.
Another hiatus occurred with the election of the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2006. The prime minister and his colleagues chose to put the promotion of human rights rather than economic co-operation at the top of their agenda in relations with China. This tended to sour relations between the two governments, since the Chinese were determined to resist any foreign interference in their internal affairs. The stand of the Harper government won it some plaudits among human rights organizations but was greeted with dismay by the Canadian business community. It took the latter three years to eventually convince Harper to change course, but it was evident that damage had been done. When Harper finally got around to paying an official visit to China, he was subjected to a public dressing down by the Chinese prime minister.
The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau came into office with a very positive attitude towards China. It seemed determined to enhance the economic relationship with China, particularly after the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, which cast a deep shadow over the prospects of the North American Free Trade agreement. Talk of negotiating a free trade agreement with China became common currency in Ottawa. But this momentum came to a halt when the prime minister put forward to the Chinese a so-called “progressive” trade agenda involving labour standards, gender equality and environmental protections. Not unexpectedly, the Chinese rejected this approach, which they undoubtedly saw as a form of interference in their internal affairs. It is now up to the Trudeau government to trim its sails if it wants to make any headway on this file. The erratic foreign policy emanating out of Washington should give it every encouragement to do so.
Canadian enthusiasm for getting closer to China is often tempered with wariness. Beyond the well-known concerns about human rights abuses, there are other causes for concern. While Canada welcomes the vast influx of Chinese students and tourists, there is always the worry that some of them may be intelligence operatives intent on acquiring information that Canadian authorities and Canadian corporations are not prepared to share. Then there is the suspicion that Canada may have been the victim of cyberattacks originating in China. There are also doubts about the intentions of state-owned Chinese companies acquiring commanding positions in Canadian companies in the oil and gas sector. Finally, there is the worry expressed some years ago by the director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service that the Chinese are seeking to recruit agents of influence among Canadian politicians.
All of these are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed by the Canadian government. They do not, however, represent major arguments against the negotiation and conclusion of a free trade agreement with China. What is required here is pragmatism and a careful calculation of costs and benefits. International trade lawyer Paul Moen concluded a recent article in the Globe and Mail with the thought: “We know how to craft the best international trade agreements. We can do it again with China.” In this he is absolutely right. While aspects of Chinese politics and society may be somewhat repugnant to us, China is simply too big a prize to ignore if we are intent on promoting the interests of Canada and Canadians.
Louis A. Delvoie is a Fellow in the Centre for International and Defence Policy at Queen’s University.
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