Listen Now

China — never a partner worth courting for Canada

China’s basic dictatorship has always been about oppression and disdain for the rule of law, argues Michael Petrou. It’s about time Canada acted accordingly.

By: /
17 January, 2019
A police officer gestures at the photographer outside the embassy of Canada in Beijing, China, December 12, 2018. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, who has been advising various American administrations for half a century, likes to show his students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government a time-lapse video of a bridge in China being replaced in 48 hours. Repairs to a similar bridge near his office in Cambridge, MA, began in 2012 and aren’t yet finished.

The implied lesson is one Prime Minister Justin Trudeau might once have endorsed. Asked in 2013 what country he most admired, he replied: “There’s a level of admiration I actually have for China. Their basic dictatorship is actually allowing them to turn their economy around on a dime.”

There is another lesson one might take from the two bridges: To the extent that delays in repairing the Cambridge-to-Boston bridge are attributable to meeting regulations on sound, damage to the environment, consultations with local residents, and the like, it is precisely what makes America, or, for that matter, Canada, greater than China.

China displaced some 1.3 million people to build its Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River. In Canada, the expansion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline will be delayed for years because the Federal Court of Appeal judged that insufficient research had been done on its environmental impact, and that First Nations had not been consulted in a sufficiently meaningful way. That result may frustrate Ottawa, but it’s how democracies work: through consultation and consent. China would have pushed the pipeline through years ago, orcas and First Nations be damned.

The problem for those who envy China’s ability to fix a bridge over the weekend or turn its economy around on a dime is that dictatorship is never just about economic flexibility and the freedom to ignore irritating protestors. It is also, always, about flouting the rule of law, cruelty and oppression, and you can’t celebrate the trains that run on time while ignoring the prison camps and secret police.

Trudeau is not the first Canadian prime minister to court closer ties with China…but he is the first to be forced to confront the hypocrisy inherent in his declared admiration.

Trudeau should have known this. Indeed, he may well have done but tried to look the other way. In 2013, when he praised China’s basic dictatorship, Amnesty International reports that torture in China was widespread and that the state was increasing its efforts to restrict freedom of information. In 2016, when Trudeau was starring in cash-for-access fundraisers attended by Chinese billionaires with ties to China’s government and Communist Party, Amnesty reports that human right defenders “continued to be systematically subjected to monitoring, harassment, intimidation, arrest and detention.” Last year, as Trudeau pledged to continue working toward a free trade pact with China, Beijing held up to one million Muslims in “re-education camps.”

Trudeau is not the first Canadian prime minister to court closer ties with China, although his predecessors were not as fulsome in their applause. But he is the first to be forced to confront the hypocrisy inherent in his declared admiration. That’s because of China’s reaction to Canada’s arrest in December of Meng Wanzhou, a top executive at Chinese telecommunications firm Huawei, at the request of the United States, with which Canada has an extradition treaty.

In an apparent retaliatory move in the days after Meng’s detention, China arrested two Canadians, former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor, on suspicion of endangering China’s national security. This week, China intensified its pressure by sentencing to death Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg, who was originally sentenced to a 15-year prison term in November on charges of drug-smuggling. This is murder as statecraft.

Canada, in other words, is receiving the sort of treatment a dictatorship always metes out to those who displease it. This is as much a part of China’s system of government as is all that Trudeau once professed to admire. If any good comes out of this diplomatic crisis, it is that he will be the last Canadian prime minister able to pretend otherwise.

Canada trades with a lot of countries with abysmal human rights records and disdain for the rule of law. China need not be any different. But Trudeau should shelve his efforts to sign a binding free trade deal with China which might restrict our freedom in our trading relationship. Canada should follow the lead of allies such as the United States and Australia and bar wireless carriers from using Huawei equipment in 5G cellular networks. China can’t be trusted not to use the technology for espionage. Trudeau shouldn’t rub shoulders with billionaires linked to the Chinese government. And the next time Trudeau is asked what country he most admires, maybe he could pick a democracy.

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us