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Why Canadians need to start worrying about China

Terry Glavin on the Liberals’ increasingly dangerous, starry-eyed enthusiasm for China, and how badly Ottawa keeps misreading its rise
Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) gestures to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool - RTX2NPOB
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China August 31, 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China, Aug. 31, 2016. REUTERS/Wu Hong/Pool

In the long lead-up to the gathering of 2,287 hand-picked delegates to the Chinese Communist Party’s 19th Congress in Beijing this week, local officials shut down the smog-belching factories in and around the city so that the sky would be blue. Restaurants in the immediate vicinity of the closed-door proceedings at the Great Hall of the People have been instructed that no cooking fires will be permitted for the duration.

Local police haven’t had a day off in weeks. Thousands of extra police have been shuttled in from around China. Authorities cancelled last weekend’s football match between Beijing’s home team Guoan and Chonqing’s Dangdai Lifan. Nightclubs are routinely raided by drug police. Television networks have been ordered to replace the usual teen idol shows and costume dramas with patriotic, “serious” content.

Well aware of widespread resentment that the Leninist oligarchy’s fabulous wealth tends to incite in China’s 1.4 billion people—almost all of China’s richest multi-millionaires and billionaires are Communist Party cadres and bigshots—protocol bureaucrats are enforcing a veneer of austerity this year. No ostentatious displays. No fancy prawns or sea cucumbers on the Congress menus. No spas. Not even free haircuts in the hotels.

The Congress meets every five years to rubber-stamp decisions handed down from the party’s upper echelons: the 376-member Communist Party Central Committee, which follows the instructions of the committee’s 25-member Politburo, which is controlled by the seven-member Politburo standing committee, which quakes and shivers in the presence of the regime strongman, Xi Jinping, the General Secretary of the Communist Party and President of the People’s Republic of China.

READ MORE: The hidden risks of opening up trade with China

Since he was elevated to the post five years ago, the 64-year-old Xi has dramatically reconstructed the architecture overlaying China’s police state at a lightning pace, establishing himself as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong. From his perch at the pinnacle of the ruling party’s pyramid and his post as head of the Leading Group for Financial and Economic Affairs, Xi has put himself at the epicentre of everything that matters.

He’s Commander in Chief of the Joint Battle Command of the People’s Liberation Army, chairman of the Central Commission for Integrated Military and Civilian Development, head of the Central Group for Internet Security and Information, head of the Central National Security Commission, chairman of the Central Military Commission, and head of the Leading Group for Foreign Affairs.

There is the usual speculation and intrigue about who’s in and who’s out, who’s going to be shuffled away and who’s going to be elevated, and there are some sideshows worth taking in. Will Xi’s radical innovations in surveillance, censorship and thought control, his emphasis on national chauvinism and his jingoistic belligerence be written into the Communist Party’s constitution? Will Xi stretch his five remaining years as party boss to 10 more years?

It’s all very fascinating, but it’s mostly beside the point.

The thing to keep your eye on is how everything about China has turned out the opposite of almost all the expert-opinion expectations that have guided European and North American approaches to Beijing ever since the early and tentative reforms of Deng Xiaoping in the early 1980s.

In Canada’s case, those wild hopes animated a generation of diplomatic careers and political reputations and sustained a powerful corporate network that remains committed to the prospect of more intimate economic, political and cultural ties with China’s ruling elites. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals are especially vested in it—and specifically to a free trade deal with China, no matter how many Canadians will have to be arm twisted and browbeaten into seeing some net benefit in it.

Richard Fadden, former director of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, says it’s all a bit puzzling. There’s nothing wrong with entering free trade talks with China, Fadden told me, but there’s something unbalanced about Canada’s approach. In the case of Russia, Canada has put up stiff resistance to the Kremlin’s bullying; strangely, in the case of China, not so much.

“I think we need to balance a little bit, our attitude towards Russia and China. We can’t ignore Russia because they’re our neighbour, and we can’t ignore China because of its economic power,” Fadden told me. “We need a comprehensive approach.”

“We need a bit of sophistication when we’re dealing with China. I don’t think we’re going in with our eyes as open as we can. I’m not sure that given what’s going on with Brexit and the EU and the NAFTA negotiations, our going in there and popping the clutch of a free trade agreement with China necessarily sends a great signal to our allies, either.”

Two months ago, Conservative House Leader Candice Bergen was supposed to be one of several MPs traveling to China on a Canada-China Legislative Association fact-finding trip. Bergen wanted to raise questions about human rights, among other things, with her Chinese counterparts. She was denied a visa. The Liberal MPs went anyway and didn’t utter a peep of complaint.

Starry-eyed enthusiasm for China has become part of the Liberal brand. It’s even got its own origin mythology in the mostly fanciful idea that Pierre Trudeau played a key role in opening China to the west by establishing diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1973. But it’s a lost fantasy world. Things simply haven’t turned out the way we’ve all been told they would. We can start with Xi Jinping himself.

The princeling son of a first-generation Communist Party patriarch, Xi was expected to be a fairly genial state-capitalist archetype of his money-bloated, ruling class generation. Instead, Xi has set out to resurrect dynastic visions of a militaristic, imperial China. He has ripped up all the timid reforms in democracy and the rule of law that were already coming to a standstill following the Tiananmen massacre of 1989.

While his own family conveniently amassed a fortune of close to a billion dollars by the time he got the top job in 2012, Xi has manipulated the Chinese public’s outrage at elite corruption and gluttony by instituting a popular anti-graft campaign that doubles as a mechanism allowing Xi to purge and intimidate his rivals.

Since coming to power, Xi has seen to the expulsion of 35 full-patch and alternate Central Committee members. More than a million party bureaucrats have been pilloried or jailed since 2012. So far this year, Xi’s operatives have disciplined or expelled 10,000 party members. Only last month, Chongqing’s powerful Sun Zhengcai, touted as a possible down-the-road successor to Xi, was led away by the corruption police.

It was back in the 1990s that the dream of riches, expanding democracy and world peace through global trade embedded itself as a full bore foreign-policy doctrine in expectations of China. That was during the days when the gentle-mannered Jiang Zemin was the Chinese president and Bill Clinton was the president of the United States. At the time, hundreds of millions of Chinese were rising out of poverty, thanks to Beijing’s long overdue abandonment of Maoist economic orthodoxy.

Jiang came off as positively pro-American. For his part, Clinton was convinced that building trade relationships with Beijing would eventually usher in democracy by “exposing China to our ideas and our ideals.” It was a hard sell to Congress, but China-U.S. trade expansion ended up a central foreign policy legacy of the Clinton White House. George W. Bush was of the same view: eventually, capitalism would turn China into a prosperous, democratic friend.

The Canadian version was mainly a replica of the American fantasy—the more China got to know us, the more our “Canadian values” would magically rub off on the dictatorship.

The opposite has happened.

China is descending rapidly into a dystopian surveillance state straight out of a science fiction movie. Remember when the internet was going to make censorship impossible and drive tyrants into history’s dustbin by denying police states the ability to control what people read and say? That’s not working out, either.

Beijng is now pioneering an all-seeing data aggregation and digital monitoring system linked to facial-recognition technology that will calibrate every individual’s identity, social-media access and purchasing power according to a “social credit” system. Among other things, the system will decide who you can communicate with electronically, what schools you can attend, whether you deserve a holiday, and if you’re allowed to take a train.

As for Clinton’s China legacy, whatever the macroeconomic evidence, hindsight has not exactly persuaded American voters to see a net benefit in China’s emergence as a leading player in global trade.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, the expectation was that within 15 years Beijing would have reformed its practices enough to allow the WTO to grant China full “market economy status.” That never happened. But by 2016, China was simply too big to boot out of the WTO, and the WTO couldn’t discipline China because the organization wasn’t built for the kind of mess China was making.

Earlier this month, a coalition of business organizations told the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office that the situation was pretty well hopeless. Subsidies to state-owned enterprises, theft of intellectual property, industrial espionage, cybersecurity regulations and absurdly tilted investment rules give Chinese companies advantages that are impossible for outside firms to surmount.

The Obama administration had hoped to “pivot” American foreign and trade attention towards Asia, but the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which U.S. negotiators intended to serve as a counterweight to China, fell apart during the final days before the election of Donald Trump. And Trump, meanwhile, is globalization’s worst nightmare, pulling America back from time-tested norms and institutions.

Under Xi, China is fast moving into all the international spaces vacated by the United States. The great hope was that China would be brought into what used to be called the Washington Consensus, and Bejing would abide by the rules. The opposite is happening. Beijing is setting out to make the rules of a new, illiberal world order, throwing its weight and its money around.

It started long before Trump came along. China spent $350 billion in various infrastructure and development projects in 140 countries between 2010 and 2014. Among the things money can buy: votes at the United Nations.

Beijing’s appointees now occupy senior offices at the World Bank, the United Nations Industrial Organization, and the International Telecommunications Union. China’s main contribution to the International Civil Aviation Organization so far has been to deny any access by Taiwan—even Taiwanese journalists—to the ICAO’s business. At the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, China is busy undermining the UN human rights system, Human Rights Watch says.

Interpol, the international police organization, is now headed by Meng Hongwei, China’s vice-minister of public security. Interpol is now being put to use chasing down the targets of Xi’s “anti-corruption” drive.

Earlier this week, Trump finally pulled the U.S. out of UNESCO. China had already been taking advantage of UNESCO following the Obama administration’s disaffection and its cut of $80 million from the UNESCO budget. China responded by making up the shortfall. Now that the U.S. is out entirely, it seems certain that UNESCO’s top job will go to Egypt’s Moushira Khatta—China’s favored candidate.

As for a Canada-China free trade agreement, the New Zealand and Australian lessons are not exactly inspiring at the moment.

New Zealanders are nine years along in their trade agreement with China. Last month, news investigations revealed that National Party MP Jian Yang, a key advisor to Prime Minister Bill English on China-related issues and a prominent media voice on Chinese trade, is a former Chinese Communist Party member. He had received military and intelligence training in China and worked as a teacher in a Chinese military linguistics academy, teaching spies how to speak English. Yang denies any wrongdoing.

Australia signed a free trade deal with China two years ago. Over the past few months, Australia has been rocked by revelations that millions of dollars worth of Chinese-linked political donations are exerting an unseemly influence in Australian politics. Beijing has infiltrated Chinese student associations, threatened Chinese dissidents in Australia, interfered with academic autonomy and has come to control most Chinese-language media.

“What we’re seeing in Australia and New Zealand, I’ve seen no suggestion that they’re not trying to do the same thing in every other country in the west, Canada included. Their intelligence organizations are fairly active here,” Fadden said. “I refuse to believe they’re not trying to the same thing in France, the U.K. and Germany. It’s just how they try to exert their influence.

“I’ve seen nothing to suggest we’re insulated from what we’re seeing in Australia and New Zealand. Nothing, nothing nothing.”