Justin Trudeau applauds China - but then, so does Stephen Harper

Perhaps Justin Trudeau should have seen the dangers of praising China's "dictatorship" before he spoke, instead of after. But the Conservative fundraising letters sent in response to his gaffe neglect both the West's long history of sucking up to the Chinese dictatorship and Stephen Harper's own praise for its progress.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau's comments at a fundraising event last week that he admired China's administration for its ability to drive the economy drew quick reaction from media and his political rivals. (CBC)

Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.
(Winston Churchill, Nov. 11, 1947)

Sixty-six years after Churchill's famous remark about his post-war electoral defeat, a less famous loser, Michael Ignatieff, explained a more mundane truth in a rueful memoir of his moment in politics, Fire and Ashes.

If you have to explain, said the fallen Liberal leader, you've already lost.

The weekend after his Toronto "Ladies" night, Ignatieff's successor had some explaining to do.

"The point I made," Justin Trudeau insisted — illustrating that he'd better explain it again, and fast — "was that, despite all of our freedoms ... we are up against countries that play by different rules that we would never accept."

Ah. Too bad he didn't put it that way while Sun TV's camera was rolling, watching for any slip-up to wave before the nation's horrified eyes. Of course, what Trudeau actually said was catnip to Sun News, and to the Conservative Party, and to the NDP.

What Trudeau actually said was that he had "a level of admiration ... for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say 'we need to go greenest, fastest — we need to invest in solar.' I mean, there is a flexibility that I know Stephen Harper must dream about of having a dictatorship that he can do everything he wanted, and I find that quite interesting."

The well-heeled Toronto crowd enjoyed the dig at Harper. Trudeau, however, seemed to know he might have made trouble for himself. He quickly added that he liked the way Canada's territories are run "without political parties" — which they are not — and ended by taunting the good folks at Sun.

"But Sun News can now report that I prefer China."

He got that part right. Indeed they can!

Of course, Sun made hay with it, and the Conservatives promptly issued fundraising letters, warning voters of the menace represented by this Liberal fan of communist dictatorship. 

Cozying up to China

Perhaps Trudeau should have seen the dangers before he spoke, instead of after. But those fundraising letters will, no doubt, be too brief to dwell on the long history of Western sucking-up to the Chinese dictatorship by politicians of the left, right and middle. Certainly, they won't quote Stephen Harper's own warm praise for the monumental progress made on the backs of China's long-suffering millions as they toiled for decades under the lash of the People's Liberation Army.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaks to business leaders in Shanghai in December, 2009. Harper praised China's progress and also told his audience Canada would continue to raise human rights issues with China. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Harper has long since cast off his early disdain for cozying up to China's communist bosses in pursuit of "the almighty dollar." Now, any dollar will do.

On his first trip to China, in 2009, Harper stepped to the podium in Shanghai to declare Canada's relationship with China was one of "mutual respect." With a thousand well-fed Chinese and Canadian businessmen before him, Harper offered the Shanghai Chamber of Commerce a paean of praise for China's great leap forward into prosperity. 

"In the last three decades, since making the first tentative moves toward liberalization, China has been witness to the greatest surge in general prosperity in the history of mankind. More than 400 million people have been lifted out of poverty."

Communism? What communism? Harper assured his audience that "the economy, once directed entirely by the state, has become firmly market-oriented, and private enterprise has flourished."

Of course, that's true as far as it goes — just as it's true that, as Justin Trudeau has it, the Chinese state can direct massive investments in solar energy.

Although — has China gone "green?" Last week's pictures from Harbin, choked by impenetrable smog, suggest otherwise. And is China really "firmly market-oriented?" That wasn't why Harper has disallowed any more takeovers of Canada's resources by China's immense, state-owned enterprises.

So, no, China's not green, and it's not a free-market economy and the dictatorship of the Communist Party remains intact. The internet is relentlessly censored; human rights are violated every day; courts are under the thumb of the party; and corruption is so pervasive that party bosses accumulate vast fortunes while dissidents rot in jail for thought crimes.

Dictatorship or democracy?

Both Harper and Trudeau are right, though, that an almost miraculous exodus from poverty has occurred in China. Dictatorship does have its advantages. Mussolini made the trains run on time. And recognizing that inconvenient fact doesn't make either Trudeau or Harper a fan of dictatorship.

Nor does it make them enemies of democracy to suggest, as both have, that it has its problems.

In Bangalore a year ago, Harper bemoaned the very slow pace of progress in a venerable but creaky democracy — India.

"We need to go farther and faster," he said. "But we do have to realize when we deal with India — as opposed to some other countries that we're dealing with in the developing world — this country is a democracy. And that means that governments cannot simply dictate a whole set of policy changes to happen the next day."

So: it's easier to deal with China. But don't tell Justin Trudeau that Harper said that. Someone will make an attack ad out of it.


Terry Milewski worked in 50 countries during 38 years with the CBC. He was the CBC's first Middle East Bureau Chief, spent eight years in Washington during the Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations and was based in Vancouver for 14 years before returning to Ottawa as senior correspondent.