How do you talk to a dragon? Softly
As a young man, Stephen Harper never took the road less travelled. Seemingly immune to wanderlust, he didn't have the yen to hitchhike around Europe or take a year off to see Africa. Harper came to office without taking in the sights and smells of the world beyond Canada.
But, where China was concerned, he made a virtue of it.
China was a Communist Goliath to be shunned and reprimanded. Harper refused to attend the Beijing Olympics and declared that human rights should not be sacrificed upon the altar of "the almighty dollar."
But times have changed. Where will Canada find new export markets now? In a U.S. staggering under a burden of debt? Or in a China that is flush with cash?
Harper has done the math. After 30 years of astounding growth, China sells four times as much to Canada as it buys from Canada. Now, as if suddenly cramming in all the travel he missed in his younger days, Harper has only just returned from India and has now, at last, set foot in the Middle Kingdom.
Before anything else, he hastened to be photographed at the Great Wall. The picture will run all over Canada, sending a message best summed up by the canny Vancouver businessman, James Ho, who's travelling with the prime minister: "Better late than never."
Ho's remark captures the flavour of the trip. It's not just that U.S. President Barack Obama got there first. Everyone seems to have preceded Harper in the rush to cash in on China's boom. The Americans, the French, the British, the Australians have all pestered the Chinese with trade missions.
So, yes, Ho has a point. And these first baby steps — a mere three days in Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong — are not expected to produce specific new trade deals. It's about "friendships," says Ho.
And what about human rights? Interestingly, that didn't seem to rate a mention in a pre-trip briefing by Harper's spokesman, Dimitri Soudas. Pressed to say something, anything, on the subject, Soudas allowed that it will be "one of the subjects to be discussed," then moved to the next question. A "senior official," shielded by anonymity, was bold enough to add that these things are best raised privately, not publicly.
So, even if Harper does cause a ruckus about China's appalling human rights record, we probably won't know about it.
But don't count on any ruckus, public or private. It's not good news for Huseyn Celil, a Canadian jailed in China for alleged terrorist connections, but we're late to the party in China and it's not just "better late than never." Both sides understand that Canada needs China more than China needs Canada. So perhaps it's better not to spoil the trip by speaking harshly to a Goliath.