Lawrence Solomon: Harper’s mission

(February 3, 2012) He is the only PM in memory who has shown any spine in his dealings with China’s brutal plunderers.

When Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper meets China’s President Hu Jintao in Beijing next week, it will be a meeting between a growing, newly confident power and one that is unsure of itself and its place in the world. Harper heads the confident power. Hu stands atop a vast chaos, a seething, heaving economy of plunderers that keeps the plundered at bay through an army of spies and thugs, of thieves that pirate the West’s designs and innovations, and of military adventurers who threaten to seize property and resources from nearly all its neighbours.

In aid of its territorial claims against its neighbours, China’s military – the world’s largest after the U.S.— has been growing rapidly and, most believe, surreptitiously — some estimates, such as from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, have had China underreporting military spending by a factor of five. Under this onslaught, Vietnam fears for its Spratly Islands, Japan for the Senkaku Islands, Taiwan for itself.

As remarkably, China’s official accounts show it to spend even more keeping its citizens in check — it calls this “social stability maintenance” — than on its military. Spending on social stability, which includes police, jails, and an elaborate domestic surveillance system that tracks citizens, has been increasing at a blistering rate – almost 14% in the current year. As with military spending, many believe the Chinese government is understating these expenses, too, to hide the shame of needing to crack down on a populace that holds it in contempt, that increasingly mocks its ham-handed stupidity, and that increasingly confronts it.

The number of protests against injustices has been steadily climbing. In 1993, according to the Chinese Police Academy, China experienced 8,700 “mass incidents.” By 2006, that figure had soared to more than 90,000 and in 2010, according to an estimate from Tsinghua University, it doubled to 180,000. The great majority of the protests are not political but economic, typically by communities protesting against the confiscation of their land by developers in league with corrupt government officials.

To defuse this powder keg, the government sometimes attacks, sometimes appeases, sometimes both. In one high profile protest last September, thousands of villagers in the southern community of Wukan demonstrated against the seizure of their farmland, leading to attacks by riot police, a counterattack by villagers, and a government siege of the village designed to starve the village into submission. After withering foreign coverage (but almost none in China’s official media), the government finally caved, agreeing to fire the corrupt officials and suspend the land seizures pending an investigation. The village of Wukan this week even conducted fair and free local elections, thought to be a first in today’s China.

But the appeasement of Wukan is very much the exception. China is today more repressive than at any time since the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Critics are being increasingly detained, beaten, or jailed for crimes such as “inciting subversion of state power” after writing essays on constitutional democracy.

“Disappearances” of dissidents are not only on the rise in China, the government’s draft criminal code is effectively legalizing them, raising fears that disappearances will become a common feature in the China of tomorrow. Chinese government caseworkers, in an odd mix of bureaucracy and brutality, advise their dissident “clients” on the liberties they may exercise (such as speaking to the press or writing an article), when they may exercise their liberties, and the merits of leaving their homes for extended periods of time, for either an exile in the countryside or outside China altogether.

What does Harper want with this government, about which he cannot have any illusions — he is, after all, the only Canadian prime minister in memory who has shown spine in his dealings with China. Harper travels not as a supplicant, as did former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien and his Team Canada of businessmen, but from a position of power, the leader of a country whose resources China, among others, covets. The itinerary for the Harper trip mostly reads like a goodwill foray — signing of “co-operation agreements,” a visit to the panda zoo, sealskin attire to promote Newfoundland jobs and other made-for-photo-op occasions. Harper hopes the Chinese will formally agree not to plunder Canadians who invest in China but he must know that China signs such agreements easily, and then fails to enforce them.

The takeaways from Harper’s trip to China — apart from the pandas that will soon visit Canada — have little to do with China proper. By promoting seal products, Harper will show Newfoundlanders he is standing up for their culture. By being respectful to China, Harper will please the large and chauvinistic Chinese-Canadian community. Mostly, however, Harper is going to China to impress upon the U.S. the danger of taking Canada for granted.

The Keystone pipeline, which President Obama has refused to permit in deference to his environmental funders, will be one of the major election issues in the U.S. presidential campaign. The prospect that Canada will ship its oil thousands of kilometres west across an ocean to China, instead of directly south to its ally and friend, offends Democrats and Republicans alike, particularly when doing so also costs U.S. jobs and makes the U.S. more reliant on unfriendly oil suppliers. The more the Obama Administration can be pressured, the better the chance of an early acceptance of Keystone, the more the Americans will understand where their interests lie. Harper wants this pipeline and he’s willing to go to China to help secure it.

Lawrence Solomon is the executive director of Urban Renaissance Institute and the author of The Deniers.

This article first appeared in the Financial Post.

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About Lawrence Solomon

Lawrence Solomon is one of Canada's leading environmentalists. His book, The Conserver Solution (Doubleday) popularized the Conserver Society concept in the late 1970s and became the manual for those interested in incorporating environmental factors into economic life. An advisor to President Jimmy Carter's Task Force on the Global Environment (the Global 2000 Report) in the late 1970's, he has since been at the forefront of movements to reform foreign aid, stop nuclear power expansion and adopt toll roads. Mr. Solomon is a founder and managing director of Energy Probe Research Foundation and the executive director of its Energy Probe and Urban Renaissance Institute divisions. He has been a columnist for The Globe and Mail, a contributor to the Wall Street Journal, the editor and publisher of the award-winning The Next City magazine, and the author or co-author of seven books, most recently The Deniers, a #1 environmental best-seller in both Canada and the U.S. .
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