Published in The Toronto Star on April 30, 2017. Click here to read the original.
It’s often small signals that reveal massive changes taking place just beneath the surface in a community. On a whirlwind trip to China, several cues to developing trends stopped me in my tracks. Having been a visitor for almost 35 years, I have had my nose to the glass at China’s transformation from impoverished agricultural police state to global economic superstar on many occasions.
On this trip three things hit me.
- The interplay of forces in politics, the economy, and the role of the Chinese citizen is far more nuanced and hopeful than the silly Cold War rhetoric of some Canadian journalists would lead one to believe.
- The transformation from copycat cheap-labour polluting industrial giant to 21st century innovation leader is accelerating.
- The sophistication of China’s evolving role on the global stage and in its bilateral relations with G20 nations cannot fail to impress in terms of pure self-interested statesmanship.
Canada’s relationship with this always-confounding people and culture is rapidly evolving, but we are struggling to keep up with the changes.
On China as an innovation leader my cue was, strangely, the Shanghai Auto show. Chinese manufacturers presented 56 concept cars — all electric and many self-driving. A decade ago there were a few laughable Chinese efforts. China is an emerging world leader in electric autonomous vehicles.
Historically, China’s service reputation has been closer to that of the U.K. — that is, the customer is always wrong — than to the rest of Asia. Today, the animated digital maps, flawless English announcements, and helpful staff on the Beijing and Shanghai subway systems would make a TTC executive blush.
Those journalists who see China through a 1960s Cold War lens on policing, law, and civil society have either never seen a real Stalinist police state up close, or are merely promoting an agenda. Those who dismiss and sneer at Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s “romantic” engagement with the world’s emerging superpower are similarly just fools.
No, China is not a democracy. Yes, China’s approach to rights and to the sovereignty of the individual citizen are often deeply troubling, and certainly not ours. But the private, social, and civic space for the ordinary Chinese citizen is greater today than at any time in its history, and expanding. That is surely the more relevant test of progress than whether they have arrived at our level of expectations of rights and freedoms.
Trudeau is surely right in recognizing that the Canada/China relationship is the quintessential challenge for our children’s economic prosperity.
We must keep our focus on building deeper and broader connections with China. Canada’s economic ties to China tomorrow must be as dense and interwoven as are ours with the U.S. today, if we are to secure prosperity. More Canadian institutions are moving faster to ensure that than ever: academic exchange, research partnerships, investment in the domestic markets of each country by businesses from the other, and a dizzying round of high level ministerial and trade missions.
Our new ambassador last month — his first — hosted a premier, two federal and half a dozen provincial ministers, each with China-focused business and academic delegations. He has already raised Canada’s profile at the official level. He will be a star in the Chinese media. John McCallum is funny, unassuming, and has a teenager’s enthusiasm for his career-capping gig. He makes it clear that half his job is pushing Canadians to understand the essential place China has in our future.
To those in the Canadian academy and the media who think the best way to seize attention and to sell newspapers is hyperventilating about all the things that China does not get right, give your head a shake. Yes, we will continue to push our vision of rights and the rule of law. But no, we will not allow a relationship important to both countries to be derailed by endless public finger wagging.
Sadly, Canadians who want a more honest portrayal of the fascinating changes taking place in China, and tales of the rapidly growing partnerships with Canadians, will need to find those stories beyond the mainstream Canadian media.
Robin V. Sears, a principal at Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a Broadbent Institute leadership fellow, was an NDP strategist for 20 years.