Beijing has a serious image problem and its officials are not making things any easier with their knee-jerk, defensive responses to questions of human rights.
China and Canada have been engaged in exploratory talks towards a free-trade agreement. Yet, in its public statements to Canadians, Ottawa often sounds non-committal. A free-trade deal makes good sense for both countries. So what’s not to like?
The short answer is that most Canadians don’t want such a deal. Quite simply, China has a serious image problem.
Nearly nine in 10 Canadians are either “uncomfortable” or “somewhat uncomfortable” with the idea of granting greater access to Chinese state-run companies to their economy, according to a survey in April by the national newspaper The Globe and Mail. And almost eight in 10 Canadians think any free-trade conditions should be tied to human rights.
Of course, it’s possible to tweak any trade deal such that Chinese investments in Canadian strategic industries might have to be passive or that these might be considered no-go zones. But given the high level of public antipathy towards the Chinese government, it appears many Canadians prefer not to have such a deal at all.
Unlike Australia and New Zealand, both of which have free-trade deal with China, Canada is far away from Asia. The United States is, and will always remain, its most important trading partner. US President Donald Trump has been putting heavy pressure on Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the decades-old North American Free Trade Agreement. That has created an opening for China.
But senior Chinese officials have not always helped China’s case in their words and behaviour.
Last summer, Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅 ) almost caused a diplomatic row when he berated a Canadian reporter who asked a question about China’s human rights records during a press conference in Ottawa. And the question was actually directed at Canada’s then-foreign affairs minister Stephane Dion.
Then, in a high-profile interview in March, China’s new ambassador to Canada, Lu Shaye, declared that Beijing expected full access to the Canadian economy under any free-trade deal and that Chinese companies might bring in their own workers. He also said any attempt to block takeovers of Canadian companies on grounds of national security would be viewed as protectionism.
If Beijing wants to help Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in the delicate task of convincing Canadians that such a trade deal is a win-win, its officials will have to learn to be more sensitive to Canadian concerns.