Stewart Beck : Negotiating the Canada China divide

Clash of traditions rattles Canada-China relations.

Photo : Getty Image

 

Understandably, being caught in the middle of a changing global reality is a very unhappy place to be for Canada. For the last 400 years the West has emerged to dominate, both technologically and politically, through the evolution of rule of law and liberal democratic principles. Before that, China and India were economic powerhouses in their own rights with cultural traditions and political structures very different than those in the West.

India and China dropped the shackles of colonialism at roughly the same time — in 1947 India became independent and in 1949 the Communist party consolidated its control over China. The paths to their development since that time have been slower and uneven in the case of India, and rapid and dramatic in the case of China. Both cultures have different philosophical roots, but India’s exposure to the concept of rule of law has been longer and more ingrained in business, and legal ethics and values.

Culturally, China is a Confucian society; one that respects and expects authority. Rule of law, until recently, is a Western concept that has taken, as far as China is concerned, a relatively short period of time to develop and, as far as the party leadership is concerned, has little, if any, application in a Confucian society.

In the last 40 years China has emerged to be a global economic leader with the support and encouragement of the West. Many thought a prosperous China would be a China that would accept Western liberal traditions, including democracy and that fundamental tenet of democracy, the rule of law. This hasn’t happened, and China and the West are moving toward a philosophical and, one hopes, not a military confrontation.

The West’s technological and economic superiority is being challenged by China. Some would say it’s a clash of values, but it may be more a clash of traditions. Either way, Canada is now caught in the uncomfortable position of alienating this emerging economic powerhouse, one with unfamiliar traditions and political philosophy, by supporting a long-standing friend and partner whose influence, by its own choice, is diminishing on the global stage.

One of the strategic pillars for the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada is building Asia competence. This is a long-term strategy to help Canadians understand the culture, traditions and business practices of Asian societies to better capitalize on the economic opportunities presented by the world’s fastest-growing region.

Our polling shows Canadians are beginning to understand the importance of Asia and our connectivity to the region. In our 2018 National Opinion Poll (NOP), 43 per cent of Canadians saw Canada as part of the Asia Pacific region up from 34 per cent in 2016 and 18 per cent in 2013. Canadians, at the time of the poll in March, although not high at 27 per cent but up from 2016, saw our relations with China improving — and a remarkably large number, 80 per cent, saw our relationship with the U.S. worsening. Support for a free-trade agreement with China was at its all-time high at 59 per cent support, up from 36 per cent in 2014. And 60 per cent of Canadians saw China as more of an opportunity than a threat, up 19 percentage points from 2014.

Why are these numbers important? Because, if the foundation conducted the same poll today, Canadian views on the U.S. would likely be unchanged, but those on China would be much worse. This at a time when China, by demonstrating an understanding of Canada’s tradition of the rule of law, could have positively influenced Canadian attitudes as opposed to reinforcing fears of political pressure by the Chinese government (64 per cent of Canadians in our 2018 NOP were concerned that Canada will become more vulnerable to economic and political pressures from the Chinese government).

Canada hopes and wants China to move toward a rule-of-law judicial system. It will not happen soon, and maybe never, but there is no reason China can’t accept our traditions and practices like they expect us to accept theirs. Rule of law provides for an open and transparent process to protect the rights of any individual.

The Canadian judicial system isn’t influenced by political intervention and, if it ever is, there are negative repercussions for the government and positive outcomes for the defendant.

We are proud of our judiciary and the Western liberal tradition of respect for the rule of law, and the Chinese government, although it may not like it, should appreciate that the current diplomatic impasse can’t be solved through political intervention by the Canadian government.

And the arbitrary detention of Canadian citizens to encourage political intervention in the judicial process will not achieve the desired goal and will only negatively impact Canadian attitudes at a time when Canada needs more positive engagement with this emerging global leader.

The door was open in Canada for broader engagement with China and had China taken a more nuanced response to our legal traditions, the Canada-China relationship would have maintained its positive trajectory. We have survived other challenges in this relationship, but it is time, as the Western world reassesses global power relationships, that China understands bridging cultures means people and ideas cross both ways on that bridge. Treating detained Canadians as they would be treated in Canada is a start, releasing them would show a greater appreciation of Western legal traditions and possibly put our relationship back on track.

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