Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s first term was characterized by ambivalence about China that was new to the business community. They had been used to years of federal governments seeing nothing in China but a huge opportunity to sell Canadian goods, services and resources to the awakening dragon.
Mr Harper, by contrast, led a government that had a strong inclination to inject moral principles into policy — or at least different ones than had informed policy under the Liberals. The previous government saw international affairs as more or less value-free; Canadian governments had no business having feelings, let alone views, about how countries conducted their internal affairs (unless that country was the United States!). Canada’s was a friendly government that could do business with anyone.
The Harper Conservatives, perhaps surprisingly for a business-oriented party, felt that a liberal democracy such as Canada must balance the need to promote the flow of commerce with the need to assert Canada’s moral values abroad. In particular the prime minister wanted to make clear his disapproval to regimes, such as China’s, that engaged in illiberal policies that shock the consciences of Canadians. While the Liberals’ reserved their moral opprobrium for our American neighbours, Harper clearly feels that American democracy is quite capable of passing suitable judgments on its leaders. Oppressive regimes, by contrast, need to be subjected to outside pressure if they are to be inched toward reform and openness.
The government was rather constrained by a number of factors in pursuit of this policy, however. Chief among these was its lack of purchase in Quebec, the province the Conservatives had identified as the most likely source of their much sought-after parliamentary majority. In the event, the Tories were disappointed, actually losing one seat in that province in the recent election.
Importantly for future government policy toward China, however, was a little observed fact about the recent election. While the government did relatively poorly in Quebec, and far worse than had been expected, they did much better than had been forecast among ethnic communities that had hitherto been the backbone of the Liberal Party in English Canada. The Tories had written them off as unwinnable, but in places such as suburban Vancouver and Toronto support from ethnic groups earned the government new seats or brought them far closer to victory than had previously seemed possible.
Quebec’s recalcitrance vis-à-vis the Conservatives has only been reinforced since the election as French-speaking voters took offence at the prime minister’s attacks on the putative coalition for its total reliance on the votes of the Bloc Québécois, a party dedicated to the breakup of the country. That means that the prime minister’s hopes of a parliamentary majority now lie far more with ethnic minorities than with the French-speaking voters of Quebec. And this is a population that has clearly warmed to the prime minister’s natural tendency to want to project Canadian values of freedom and democracy abroad.
The government’s China policy will likely, therefore, be driven by two contradictory tendencies. On the one hand will be fear of China’s reaction to an aggressive policy on human rights issues, especially when an economic downturn is making every export market attractive. On the other will be a desire to ingratiate themselves with ethnic populations more interested in politics in their countries of origin than in Canada export performance. It is too early to tell if one will trump the other, but a government anxious to shore up its electoral prospects in a minority parliament might suggest that we are in for a further bout of strained relations between Ottawa and Beijing.