Don Pittis: Canada's best future export to China could be our democratic example

Canada has much to offer China. But Don Pittis argues that our most precious export to the booming country won't always be oil or some other raw material. Rather, it's the lesson of democracy and the benefits that Canadian-style power-sharing would bring.
China's leaders, currently gathering at the latest Communist Party Congress, would be well advised to open up their country's power structure to many more voices beyond the elite, Don Pittis argues. And Canada, he says, could offer important lessons in pluralism that would be far more important than any resource export we could provide. (Carlos Barria / Reuters)

For all its obvious differences, the birth of a new Chinese government this week has a few key similarities to its democratic equivalent in the United States last week.

Canadians pondering our future dealings with the world's second largest economic and political powerhouse would be wise to realize it.

For one thing, as with the new democratic government to our south, when the powerful Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China announces itself on Thursday, it will be entirely drawn from the country's elite.

And while China may not have a "fiscal cliff" per se — the latest economic bugaboo in the U.S. — it is just as uncertain whether Beijing's new government will be able to solve its own brewing problem.

A third similarity that Canadians politicians and business leaders must understand is that no matter what they said or didn't say before taking office, we have no idea what the heck they are really going to do.

Remember, it was a right-wing president, Richard Nixon, who first reached out to an unreconstructed Communist China in 1972.

It was the conservative Jiang Zemin, leader of the iron faction that crushed student democracy, who presided over the greatest economic explosion in Chinese history. It featured extraordinary annual growth rates that peaked in 1994 above 30 per cent.

A billion toothbrushes

I was a business reporter in Hong Kong at the time, and the excitement over the Chinese market opening of the early 1990s was sending shivers of enthusiasm down the spines of visiting Canadian capitalists.

"Imagine selling every person in China a single toothbrush," was one of the lines I remember hearing repeated.

A billion people, went the logic, a billion toothbrushes. The dollar signs danced in their heads. "And that's just the toothbrushes!"

With the wisdom of hindsight, the irony is delicious and instructive. Only 20 years later, at a moment when Prime Minister Stephen Harper is busy formalizing business links with Beijing, it is China selling the toothbrushes to us. Along with televisions, computers, underwear, smartphones, and lawn ornaments. Our job is to provide the raw materials.

Ties that bind

As soon as this week, without any input from Canadians, our country will enter a long-term (31-year!) binding agreement with the new and as yet unknown government of China.

Chinese President Hu Jintao and Stephen Harper at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Summit in Vladivostok in September 2012, where a new bilateral trade agreement was announced. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

Twenty years ago we thought we would be exporting toothbrushes. Now, we foresee China coveting our resources.

The merits of our deal with Beijing, the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement, are in dispute, but what is certain that in 20 years, our economic relationship with China will not be the same as Harper imagines it is right now.  

I, for one, am convinced that Canada's most important future export to China will not be a mineral.

Over 20 years, I have watched the transformation and growth of the Chinese economy.

And so long as global markets continue to function, and so long as China is not riven by internal disputes, I am convinced that its strong economy will have no trouble attracting the resources it requires no matter who owns them.

Political transformation

And while during the last 20 years, China's transformation has been economic, I am convinced during the next 20, China's transformation will be political. That is China's fiscal cliff.   In 20 years, the Harper government will be gone. In 20 years, solar power or some undiscovered technology may well have crowded out our oilsands resource. But our agreement with China will still bind our two countries together.

During that time, the most precious export Canada can offer to China is our technology and example of democracy and its most important component, pluralism -- the distribution of power to many parts of society. It is pluralism that prevents voting from becoming a sham.

Currently, a small group of men hold the reins in China. The oldest witnessed the power of the 1949 revolution. Even more of them witnessed the chaos and terror of the Cultural Revolution. They fear sudden change. 

For now we can profit by selling our natural resources. But we must also offer the precious gift of the slow revolution – democracy -- even though we really don't know how it works.

We cannot know what kind of China our Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement is binding us to.

But a week after a small group of billionaires with a shape-shifting front man nearly took power in the United States, we in Canada must help China grow a new, healthy, way of sharing and distributing power.