Just before he was slated to head off to China to talk trade with then-President of China, Jiang Zemin, Jean Chretien made a morally bankrupt, but painfully honest, comment.
"I'm the prime minister of a country of 28 million people," Chretien said, according to Iron Man, Lawrence Martin's biography of our occasionally unhinged former leader. "He's the president of a country with 1.2 billion. I'm not allowed to tell the premier of Saskatchewan or Quebec what to do. Am I supposed to tell the president of China what to do?"
Fast forward more than a decade and we've got Prime Minister Sunshine in China this week to make some new friends. And to make us fistfulls of fuckmoney.
Since landing in Beijing, Trudeau has met with various Chinese officials and business leaders, signing various economic agreements that are forging the way towards a full-on free trade agreement. Even before the trip is over, the Trudeau government has bragged that it's inked $1.2 billion in new contracts between Canadian and Chinese companies.
But lest you think Trudeau is just there to butter up the Politburo into buying more maple syrup, the Liberal government wants you to know that Chretien was wrong—and Canada is totally getting shit done on human rights.
And that, supposedly, was a big theme in Trudeau's speech to the Canada China Business Council today.
Clocking in at just over 2,300 words, it's undoubtedly supposed to be the high-level sketch of how Ottawa and Beijing are going to be cozying up to each other in the future. And while news headlines around Canada billed the speech was a verbal smackdown—"Trudeau offers public critique of China's human rights record in Shanghai," "Trudeau delivers blunt message on human rights in China," "Justin Trudeau uses business speech in China to focus on human rights"—it wasn't exactly a barn burner.
In fact, the vast majority of the speech was about business ties and tourism, not about human rights at all.
By far the most full-throated part of the speech was the following:
"I think there are ways in which a stronger relationship makes it easier for our two countries to have regular, frank discussions on issues like good governance, human rights, and the rule of law. Freedom of expression is a true Canadian value, one protected by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms. You see, Canada has succeeded, culturally, politically, economically because of our diversity, not in spite of it," Trudeau said.
He followed up that humblebrag with an insistence that he told all of this to President Xi Jinping when they sat down earlier in the visit.
"I shared with them my strong conviction that acceptance of diverse perspectives will strengthen China, just as it has Canada. In a world of rapid change, it is a diversity of ideas, and the free ability to express them, that drives positive change," he said.
But wait, here comes the coup de grâce: "Canada encourages China to do more to promote and protect human rights."
And with that, President Xi broke into tears, released the 40 human rights lawyers that are currently being held in secret prisons across the country, agreed to stop executing thousands of people per year, and ended the violent occupation of Tibet, for his heart grew three sizes that day.
Obviously, that didn't actually happen.
Trudeau is unquestionably pulling punches on Beijing's human rights record for the same reason that Chretien did—ditto for Harper, Mulroney, and Martin. Because, as with all of his predecessors, cash rules everything around him.
That's why his cornerstone speech of his big China trip wasn't human rights, it was a travelling salesman routine cut with that old refrain: "when Canadian companies partner with Chinese companies, it means more and better-paying jobs here in China as well."
Trudeau mentioned the words "human rights" twice. "Middle class" four times. "Jobs" seven. "Economy," "Economies," and in a less grammatically dazzling sentence, "Economically" 14 times. "The" clocked it at a whopping 84 appearances.
Ok, I'm just abusing my ctrl+f at this point.
Point is: Trudeau didn't visit China to promote human rights. He's not there to enlist Beijing to fight climate change. He's not an altruistic do-gooder: he's there to sell shit.
And maybe that's OK. But he should at least be honest about it.
Look at Stephen Harper. In 2006, the steel-haired cowboy, then a touch slimmer and with some of his natural hair colour, apparently bit into then-President Hu Jintao. So much so that Hu refused to meet with Harper at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation conference.
"I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values," Harper said at the time. "They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar."
Well, obviously, he did sell out to that almighty dollar—C.R.E.A.M, motherfucker—and he ended up signing a trade agreement (albeit not a full free trade deal) and the criticism went much quieter around then.
But even he, Stephen Harper of clan Asshole, twisted the Communist Party's collective tit in a speech to the Canada-China Business Council (the same one Trudeau sucked up to today) in 2012.
"Canada does not—and cannot—disconnect our trading relationship from fundamental national values," Harper said. Unlike Trudeau's waffling on the matter, Harper specifically called on China to respect "freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of belief and worship."
But even in Harper's patented slap and tickle approach to working with nihilist governments, little got done. China didn't hold itself back from conquering the South China Sea—or as China's neighbours call it, the Everybody Except for China Sea—or arresting Ai Weiwei.
Hell, Harper's government couldn't even get Canadians released from Chinese jail, or stop Beijing from coming at our government systems.
And so we return to the elder philosopher, the man atop the mountain, the Shawinigan sage: Jean Chretien.
Maybe Canada should just let China do China, and make a few bucks in the process. If the same number of Uighurs are going to get arrested and tortured if we trade or not, maybe it's not wrong for Ottawa to sell a few Alanis Morissette tapes or Hudson Bay blankets.
But, counterpoint, perhaps there's moral folly to establishing our foreign policy as: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Global trade is not zero sum. It is, yes, generally a good thing, but it is not altruistic. Good trade deals—stay with me here—need to be written good. And I'm not sure many money scientists, or whatever they're called, trust China to negotiate in good faith.
And not trading with China doesn't, necessarily, make us poorer. And, generally speaking, we've already come to a general agreement that we don't want China running all of our mines, technology companies, and oil fields—preventing that would become infinitely harder in a free trade relationship.
So, ultimately, it is worth asking why we are collectively curtseying to one of the world's most morally bankrupt regimes for the sake of a trade deal that may never happen, might not be good for us, and which we can probably get along without.
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