Managing Our China Relationships: Principles for Engagement
Published: September 13, 2012
Canada’s engagement with China remains a work in progress, and we are at the early stages of what promises to be a long-term, multi-faceted relationship. For Canadians operating in China, respecting China’s sovereignty and traditions is both appropriate and necessary, but should not stop Canadians from supporting principles of intellectual independence, civil society, and human rights.
Canada’s links with China continue to grow and multiply, not only in China itself, also in Canada. Canada’s presence in China continues to expand through business, education, cultural exchanges, and migration. In Canada, expanding PRC investments - the proposed Nexen acquisition by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) is but one example – reveal China’s expanded presence in Canada through investments and other economic and business partnerships. Yet we are also hearing increased concerns from many quarters challenging the wisdom and effects of closer ties with China. With such increased interaction and unease, Canadians would do well to reflect on the character of our relationships with China and to consider ways of managing them. While Canadians should be modest in our expectations about influencing PRC government behavior, we can be intentional and principled in our own responses to China’s rise. Attention to principles of intellectual freedom, civil society, and human rights offers a useful place to start.
Intellectual freedom involves supporting diversity of ideas. In China, we have seen how rigid compliance with regime orthodoxy has led to political and policy disasters, whether during the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen, or on contemporary issues of environment, national minorities, and corruption, many of which still cannot be discussed openly. Broader dynamics of intellectual independence can contribute to better informed and more effective governance and sustainable prosperity. In Canada, the principles of intellectual freedom enshrined in our legal system are equally essential to supporting informed policy dialogue on engagement with China in Canada. The vitality of our national conversation around engagement with China requires a commitment to open debate and free exchange of ideas.
Civil society principles espouse broader civic participation in socio-economic and political processes. In China, while there are many divergent centres of action and decision, we have seen how the Party/state’s monopoly over public institutions has undermined responses to policy challenges. The growth of independent NGO’s, policy think tanks, and social organizations can contribute to the diversity and effectiveness of community responses to challenges of China’s development. In Canada, the principles of civil society supported by our regulatory systems are equally essential to supporting robust policy and regulatory consultation and decision-making on PRC investments and activities.
Finally, respect for human rights is an essential standard for governance. We continue to see compelling reports on human rights violations in China, even though China’s constitution formally supports human rights. Human rights represent essential conditions for sustainable prosperity in China, providing standards for official conduct and offering useful benchmarks for development. In Canada, human rights remain an embedded principle of Canadian law and governance, embracing both civil/political dimensions and economic/social/cultural dimensions of human rights as indispensable to the operation of our political and legal systems. Whether through the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, labor and environmental standards, or other elements of the Canadian legal and regulatory system, we should ensure that human rights standards enshrined in our laws and regulations are respected by our PRC partners.
Canada’s engagement with China remains a work in progress, and we are at the early stages of what promises to be a long-term, multi-faceted relationship. For Canadians operating in China, respecting China's sovereignty and traditions is both appropriate and necessary, but should not stop Canadians from supporting principles of intellectual independence, civil society, and human rights. While we cannot force these principles on unwilling hosts in China, we can refuse comfort and legitimacy to activities that contradict them. In our engagement with China in Canada, respecting Canada's sovereignty and traditions is no less essential and calls us to uphold principles of intellectual freedom, civil society, and human rights through enforcement of our legal and regulatory standards.
Accordingly, in managing our relationships with China, whether in China or in Canada, Canadians should consider pledging themselves to “Principles for Engagement” as follows:
1. We note that cooperation and engagement between China and Canada requires respect for local contexts;
2. We acknowledge that local challenges of governance and development in Canada and China must be addressed by the people of these countries themselves;
3. We believe that conditions of intellectual freedom, civil society participation, and respect for human rights are essential for the people of Canada and China to secure sustainable prosperity;
4. We are therefore committed to ensuring that our relationships and activities with China do not undermine principles of intellectual freedom, civil society, and human rights.
Canada’s engagement with China offers many opportunities and challenges. As we embark on what promises to be a complex array of long-term and mutually beneficial relationships, we are called to be intentional and principled. The “Principles of Engagement” can serve as an important step forward.
This piece was first published in iPolitics.ca on September 13, 2012.
Dr. Pitman B. Potter is Professor of Law and HSBC Chair in Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He is also a Senior Fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. Dr. Potter’s edited volume, 'Issues in Canada-China Relations' was published in 2011 by the Canadian International Council.