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Canada Needs to Close Knowledge Gap on China Relations, Say Experts

Without more experts, Liberal gov't may find itself at a disadvantage.

By Jeremy J. Nuttall 10 Jun 2016 |

Jeremy J. Nuttall is The Tyee's Parliament Hill reporter in Ottawa. Find his previous stories here.

This coverage of Canadian national issues is made possible because of generous financial support from our Tyee Builders.

Canada has a knowledge gap that threatens to leave the country unable to protect its own interests when making deals with China, argue academics that specialize in the economic giant.

Ryan Dunch, a professor of history and classics specializing in modern Chinese history at the University of Alberta, said there is a lack of experts who understand the nuances of China, which puts Canada at a political and economic disadvantage.*

Dunch said that Canadian educational institutions aren't dedicating enough resources to give students a sophisticated understanding of the country.

"I don't see the backing for language study and for deeper cultivation of knowledgeable people about China," he said. "We need Canadians to be able to interpret what's being said when the government of China scolds us or says, 'We've got human rights in our constitution.'"

Such a "scolding" took place in Ottawa last week when China's foreign minister Wang Yi made international headlines for losing his temper after being asked about human rights in his country, including the disappearances of Hong Kong booksellers who surfaced later in mainland China.

Wang snapped at the reporter who asked the question on behalf of Canadian media in attendance, calling it a prejudiced query and pointing out that China has human rights codified in its constitution.

That may be, Dunch said, but the same protections and legal process to ensure such rights are upheld in Canada do not exist in China, and many Canadians may not understand the difference.

Another example, he said, is the Chinese government's insistence that it is the definitive voice of every citizen, although China is a vast country with many different views and opinions. China's current government claims "an absolute and unlimited mandate to be the sole authoritative voice for the Chinese nation," Dunch said.

Canada lacks knowledge of such nuances and needs to better understand how to properly engage with the country, he said.

"It's important for Canadians and Canadian business to be able to develop an informed, critical perspective for understanding the statements coming from the Chinese government and the Chinese media," Dunch said.

Forging ahead with trade talks

The Canadian government has said it intends to address concerns about human rights through trade and engagement, committing last week to more cooperation with China on a variety of issues, including hunting down white-collar Chinese fugitives living in Canada.

The government does not seem to be contemplating any other actions to address human rights issues -- only moments before Wang berated the Canadian reporter for her question, Foreign Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion stood next to his Chinese counterpart as he announced new cooperation measures to usher in a new golden age of Canada-China relations.

Such a passive attitude toward Beijing and a poor understanding of it in the past is something Hong Kong is now coming to terms with, said Charles Burton, an associate professor and China expert at Brock University.

In the 1980s, Burton said, it was generally assumed that after China took over Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 1997, the country would become more democratic.

Hong Kong residents, who had come to enjoy freedoms that mainland residents did not, were therefore fairly passive towards Beijing's actions on human rights, expecting it to change.

Instead, in 2014, Hong Kong saw massive street demonstrations following Beijing's refusal to allow the region to hold completely open elections.

China no longer talks about democracy as an ultimate political goal, instead referring to it as being a western ideal, Burton said.

"That realization in Hong Kong I think is what is spawning the localism movement," he said. "A conflict is happening because the expectations of Hong Kong people with regard to the mainland have not been fulfilled, and they were naive to think so."

Burton said he's also concerned about how Canada makes deals with China, noting that many Ottawa advisers don't speak a Chinese language, let alone have an intimate understanding of the country.

According to Burton, the federal government is too reliant on advice from big business more concerned with economic growth than human rights and other worries.

"Any government in Canada doesn't seem to have the sophistication to be able to engage in a China policy that satisfies both Canadians' concern over human rights and security and our desire to grow our economy," he said. "The government just doesn't understanding the importance of having the expertise necessary."

Pipeline for free trade?

Justin Trudeau's promised push for a free trade deal with China comes despite polling by Nik Nanos showing 76 per cent of Canadians have a negative view of the idea.

Kai Nagata of the anti-pipeline group Dogwood Initiative said it's been evident to him for some time that Canada's politicians are willing to put Beijing's concerns ahead of Canadians'.

Dogwood Initiative has started a campaign urging Canadians to "stand up to China" over its demand for a pipeline and tanker port in British Columbia as a condition to start free trade talks.

Near the end of last week's media conference, Wang denied the pre-condition exists, despite it being well-documented in Canadian media.

Nagata said he's concerned by the attitude of China's minister in Ottawa last week and the federal government's apparent willingness to work with Beijing regardless of what Canadians want.

He said China is dangling a free trade deal in front of the Liberals and using it to get Canada to accept an "unusual amount of diplomatic abuse." Ottawa's timid response doesn't give him hope the Liberals will stand up for Canadians' concerns, he said.

"I wonder how much (China) cares about rights and title of First Nations on the west coast and how much they care about the rights of British Columbians who don't want more oil tanker traffic through our communities," he said.

But engaging China on issues that affect both nations and encouraging the country to collaborate on solutions will be difficult unless the government fills its knowledge gap, Burton said.

Meanwhile, he said, last week's incident with the foreign minister will probably force Ottawa to revamp its plan on selling Beijing-backed ideas to Canadians.

"People now have a very determined attitude that our government has to represent Canadian values, and in our dealing with China we cannot compromise the things that make Canada great: our respect for human rights and rule of law," he said.

*Story corrected June 12 at 10:45 a.m.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Politics, Environment

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