In 1960, Prime Minister John Diefenbaker effectively opened basic relations with China by strongly promoting the sale of Canadian wheat to a society grappling with famine, economic stagnation, and severe political and social turmoil. China’s centrally planned; monolithically organized economy was continuously failing to feed its population, despite the presence of a colossal labour force, plentiful water resources, and roughly 10% of the world’s arable land.
At the time, China’s systematically self-imposed losses contributed to warmly received Canadian gains, later, Prime Minister Trudeau visited and officially recognized China in 1970 and warm relations have followed. After Mao died, his successor, Deng Xiaoping opened the country to the world and began a progression of massive economic liberalization which would pull hundreds of millions of poor peasants out of debilitating poverty and which launched one of the greatest economic upswings in human history.
Today China is the second largest economy in the world and will overtake the United States within a decade, perhaps sooner if the US political system remains bereft of any real impetus to reform. As Canadians, we must seriously move away from our economic reliance on a dilapidated America and move assertively and rapidly to augment our access to the markets of the future: namely East Asia and the Pacific Rim. The Harper government’s recent signing of a sweeping new investment treaty is precisely what Canadian businesses are looking for: long term stability and certainty. More efforts, however, will be needed and ultimately our link with Beijing should include a free trade deal, visa free travel, and membership in a future Pacific Community – an international organization which would serve as a political and economic forum of Pacific Nations, along the lines of the Organization of American States.
The great stumbling blocks to the construction of such ties derive from commonly held misnomers and fallacies which I will attempt to deconstruct in the closing elements of this post. There is also the stubborn, unproductive tendency of certain groups in Canada and the West who bring up human rights abuses as the dominant argument against giving the Chinese the one political thing they truly want: respect as an equal global partner. In no way whatsoever do I condone the egregious human rights abuses of the regime, but I do believe that building institutions and relations which include Beijing and treat it with the respect it deserves will provide true incentives for China to end its abuse of human rights and relax its superfluous paranoia of losing political control and domestic stability. In the words of former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating: “The seemingly perpetual invocation of this human rights mantra attributes no moral value to the size and quality of the Chinese achievement, the human condition had improved dramatically across the Chinese landscape”.
Throughout the Western world, especially in the United States, politicians have begun to discharge mindless talking points about the need to blame domestic economic woes on China’s ‘abuses’ and ‘unfair advantages’- supposedly no environmental and safety regulations, starvation wages, and currency manipulation. Recent crackdowns in China have resulted in the closure of hundreds of firms caught polluting rives and breaking rules, wages have been increasing dramatically, especially in the wealthy coastal regions where they rose by over 12% in Shanghai last year, and the yuan will continue to appreciate by at least 3% in the next decade. The idea that China needs the developed world to buy its products and prop up its economy is also false, especially now that Beijing is starting to restructure to emphasize more domestic consumption and less emphasis on exports, following in the footsteps of Japan and South Korea.
The potential benefits and opportunities of a strong relationship with the world’s next superpower are truly too big to ignore – Australia and New Zealand, similar to us in their values and priorities, recognize this and are acting, we must do the same. Hundreds of thousands of jobs, billions of dollars in investment, and stronger and deeper cultural and social ties are among the few potential paybacks. Even more fundamental and important than economic benefits are the political ones: if we can lead the establishment of a political community where China is included and treated as a partner, we can ensure the next round of global peace. America’s increasingly more vocal effort to contain a power that has never been expansionist in its 5000 year history is repeating the same mistakes which lead to the First World War. We must not allow those mistakes to be repeated.