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Canadians Abroad: Stephen Harper, Belated Visitor To China

December 9, 2009

Stephen Harper probably felt like he was already back on Parliament Hill when he visited the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea the other day. The juvenile antics indulged in by both sides as they literally glower at each other across the DMZ seem to be animated by exactly the same spirit that prevails in the House of Commons:

Campbell told the story of when the South Korean leader met with George W. Bush in Washington in 2004.

At the moment the two shook hands, two North Korean guards entered Convention Row – which is used by both sides, but not at the same time – and one blew his nose on a miniature South Korean flag while the other wiped his boot on the Stars and Stripes.

The flags have been covered in plastic ever since.

In Beijing, on the other hand, Harper may have felt like he was back in elementary school as Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao rebuked him for not visiting sooner, pointedly remarking that “this is the first meeting between the Chinese Premier and the Canadian Prime Minister in almost five years”. This provoked much gnashing of teeth in the Canadian media, but I suspect this was largely the result of reading into Wen’s remarks a scolding, even imperious tone that may never have been intended. After all, it’s hardly abnormal for friends to tell each other that they should get together more often.

It also has to be said that Harper handled himself beautifully, saying in reply:

I agree with you Premier that five years is a long time. It’s also been almost five years since we’ve had yourself or President Hu in our country, and so I hope as we approach this important milestone in our relationship, the forty year anniversary, that yourself or President Hu will also have the opportunity in the not too distant future to visit Canada.

Verbal fencing aside, Harper seems to have done as well in China as could be expected. The main concrete achievement of the trip was the fact that Canada has now become the 135th-odd country to be awarded “Approved Destination Status” by China, meaning that Chinese tourists will now be able to visit Canada much more easily. Chinese tourism, I’ve discovered during my sojourn in the East, quite often involves large flocks of inveterate photographers being shepherded around cultural sites by a dutiful tour guide, whose main tasks are to maintain a relentless expository monologue and brandish a colourful little pennon to give the group a focal point. Once, in the confines of Beijing’s Forbidden City, I saw a tour guide inexplicably using a Winnie the Pooh doll dangling from the end of a long stick as a substitute for the usual pennon. Poor Winnie looked like he’d been lynched by hephalumps – but I digress. The point is that Canada can expect to benefit economically from an influx of Chinese visitors, whose presence should also create some opportunities for worthwhile interaction.

Harper’s willingness to engage with China, of course, marks a welcome change from the sullen cold-shouldering that characterised his first few years in power. The idea seemed to be that the Chinese were unworthy of Canadian attention so long as they failed to embrace democracy and human rights, as defined by Canadians. Cultural differences, historical circumstances and basic respect for national sovereignty and self-determination were swept under this ideological carpet. It’s good to see this narrow-minded attitude changing, even if Harper’s visit was driven more by a sense of economic and geopolitical necessity than by a newfound philosophical maturity.

However, it’s not difficult to find commentators who still seem to think that Canada should be trying to push China to change in ways that suit our own prejudices and sensibilities. According to David Akin, we maintain our relationship with China “because of the 1.2 million Canadians who have origins in this country and because Canada has generally believed that engagement is the best way to achieve social and political change in China.”

The first part of this rationale amounts to simple ethnic pandering on the domestic front, something that Harper incidentally did far too much of during his earlier visit to India. The second part describes an evangelical concept of Canadian foreign policy that is paradoxically both arrogant and servile: arrogant because it assumes that our way of doing things is best for everyone in the world, all the time, and servile because it postulates that our attention should be focused on helping others reach this ideological nirvana rather than promoting our own legitimate interests. I’d much rather have a government willing to shrug off the white man’s burden and get down to business, and it’s to Harper’s credit that he’s apparently beginning to do exactly that.

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