Sino-Canadian relations stuck on platitudes
The Chinese market for Canadian exporters is one-third the size of Michigan's
The People’s Daily man in Ottawa cornered me in conversation. The scene was a reporters’ gathering on Parliament Hill. The topic was the latest domestic scandal over Chinese espionage. Mr. Li was excitable. “Do you think Canada has anything worth stealing?” he said. I paused. “Well, there’s time zones.”
Canada nailed this in 1879, but in the People’s Republic the concept of adjusting clocks to account for rotation of the Earth remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery. Villages in the motherland operate on Beijing time by government decree. Imagine all of Canada running on the Peace Tower clock, even if it meant kids in Blairmore had to play in the dark.
There is much to fault with China, though we are too polite to spell it out. I was a Beijing-based trade reporter in 1995-98, long enough to document the dysfunction and collect jokes:
QUESTION: How do you spot the crooks in China?
ANSWER: They’re the ones in the police uniforms.
China is maddening. Corruption is rampant. Deception is epidemic. The State Statistics Bureau complains of dishonest economic data (“big talk, false facts and inflated figures,” as the official Xinhua news agency once put it). Even run-of-the-mill audits and tax assessments are subject to abuse and coercion. Courts, unions, zoning boards – all are run by the Communist Party.
The sharpest insight on such trading partners remains a 1946 Soviet guide written by George Kennan, the late U.S. diplomat. “Don’t make fatuous gestures of goodwill,” he wrote. “Don’t assume a community of aims with them which do not really exist”; “Make no requests of them unless we are prepared to make them feel our displeasure in a practical way in case the request is not granted”; “Do not be afraid of unpleasantness and public airing of differences.”
In other words, keep it strictly business.
Yet Ottawa’s relations with China remain focused on dumplings and platitudes. There have been nine prime ministerial trade missions since 1993, and the Chinese market for Canadian exporters is still one-third the size of Michigan’s. We sell twice as much to Illinois. Export-wise China is worth about three Montanas. Profit-wise it is a disaster.
Since posting our last Chinese trade surplus in 1991, the Canadian trade deficit with Beijing has grown by an average 21 per cent a year. It is worth more than $31 billion annually. Doesn’t anyone make money in China?
Apparently, yes. A crewman serving with Captain Cook in 1778 completed the following transaction by historical account: “… Bought a hatchet in England for a shilling, sold it in Tahiti for 30 green beads, 15 of which he exchanged for six sea-otter skins in Nootka which in turn brought him more than £90 in Macao – a profit of 1,800 per cent.”
So, 21st-century Canadian politicians have less financial acumen than 18th century English sailors. The prime minister completed a recent trade mission to China without once uttering the phrase “trade deficit.”
Stephen Harper is no sinophile. He has made no serious study of the country or its people. There is no evidence Harper visited Asia or even owned a passport until his election as an MP at age 34 (the Prime Minister’s Office refused comment when asked when he first traveled abroad). Harper is not unique in this regard. Jean Chrétien never traveled west of Lake Huron till becoming a parliamentary secretary at 31.
The impact of Stephen Harper’s recent trade mission has sunk without a trace. One Conservative backbencher polled constituents, “Do you support the efforts of the Canadian government to find alternate markets like China for our oil exports?” Fifty per cent said no. Forty-nine per cent said yes. There were 3,426 respondents. “I am not confident in the results,” sighed the MP.
So it’s come down to bears. A government publicist described the promised loan of two Chongqing pandas to the Calgary Zoo next year as a profound symbol of “peace, friendship and good fortune” – but failed to mention the unhappy saga of Cheng Cheng and Rong Rong.
In May 1989 the two bears were loaned to Winnipeg’s Assiniboine Park Zoo amid a $3-million marketing blitz. “Panda craze!” a promoter called it. The Tiananmen Square massacre came a month later, prompting one enterprising Winnipegger to do brisk trade in lapel buttons that read, “f—k the pandas.”
Now, even lovable mammals seem tired.
Tom Korski is a reporter and independent documentary filmmaker on Parliament Hill; in his Prairie past he was 1992 president of the Alberta Press Gallery.