Could the Conservatives deliver tougher polices on China?

Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

After a journalist asked Erin O’Toole last week why the Conservative platform contained more references to “puppies” than to“racism,” some folks on Twitter had fun comparing the frequency of various words in the major party platforms.

The one that stood out to me was this: the Conservative Party platform uses the words “China” or “Chinese” 41 times; the Liberal Party platform mentions China just once. The NDP, for its part, mentions China five times, most in a single, short but robust paragraph that mentions human rights abuses, Hong Kong, and Chinese intimidation within Canada.

At a time when Canada’s relationship with our second-largest national trading partner has never been worse, this is a glaring disparity. And if, as some commentators have claimed (with due allowance for world-weary exaggeration), the Conservatives’ and the Liberals’ domestic promises are variations on a common theme, it may be the clearest difference between the two platforms.

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In fairness to Trudeau, his actions over the last few years have spoken loudly enough to provoke the ire of both the Chinese Communist Party and those members of Canada’s elite who, in every diplomatic dispute between Canada and China, can be relied upon to side with their bank balances. To them, Trudeau has been naïvely self-righteous in refusing to play along with China’s hostage diplomacy over Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. But this just makes the Liberal platform’s silence all the more curious — Trudeau could have at least taken credit for that principled stance.

O’Toole’s 41 references, by contrast, range from practical and overdue fixes to swaggering but likely vain bravado, but together they add up to the most obsessive focus on a single country by a would-be Canadian government since the height of the Cold War. That in itself is revealing of how the Conservatives see the growing superpower: more threat than opportunity.

Some, like sanctioning “China’s worst human rights offenders,” discouraging Canadian universities’ from partnering with Chinese state entities, and introducing a ban on former senior public office holders working for a Chinese-controlled entity, are well within the power of a new government to enact. Others, like “insisting that major polluters like China clean up their act,” and “prevent[ing] Russia and China from dominating our Arctic” will require cooperation from our allies, which cannot be counted on.
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Most of them, especially committing Canada to joining the “Quad” — an embryonic “Pacific NATO” that China perceives as encircling and constraining its regional ambitions — will invite furious responses. A nation’s economic and political interests are always intertwined, but with China the former is a weapon of the latter. Just ask the Australian wine and rock lobster industries after their government had the temerity to object to Beijing’s bully tactics. Implementing his China policies would require O’Toole to accept similar trade-offs.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the challenge with political trade-offs lies in what you have to trade off. That is especially true when the things being sacrificed are hope for imprisoned Canadians, jobs here in Canada, and trade opportunities at a time when you are banking on economic growth to pay for the rest of your promises. It is one thing to say no to China; it’s quite another thing to say no to the Canadians begging you to keep their businesses afloat.

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These are not easy decisions. The last Conservative government, which came into office talking tough on Chinese human rights abuses, struggled for a decade to reconcile principle and pragmatism. If it never quite got the balance exactly right, that is because there is no “exactly right” balance. If ever you think you’ve briefly achieved it, unforeseen events and Chinese machinations will conspire to knock you off-kilter. That doesn’t mean, however, that there aren’t better and worse choices.

The Conservative Party platform tacitly admits that welcoming the Chinese regime into the global economic system in 2001 was a mistake. Walking back that error, even if it could be achieved on a multilateral basis, which is highly unlikely, would be costly. It will be even more costly for Canada if we go it alone. Canadians have so far been receptive to the idea of imposing consequences on China for its government’s malefactions; the question is whether we are willing to accept the consequences for ourselves.

If the Conservatives do form government, O’Toole and his new ministers and MPs can expect the calls for compromise to come thick and fast, not least from well-connected Conservative lobbyists. It won’t just be big corporate interests speaking out, either. Prairie farmers, Atlantic fishermen, and B.C. resorts would be on the front lines of any showdown between Canada and China, and each of the premiers will know well the consequences for their own economies — and their electoral futures.

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It is asking a lot of Canadians to make personal sacrifices for the kind of principles that inspired the Conservative platform, but there is at least one overwhelming pragmatic argument that should bolster the moral one: whatever the price of facing down China’s regime is now, it will only grow the longer it is put off.

Each failure to name and sanction genocide by the Chinese Communist Party encourages the next, as Western passivity on Tibet and Falun Gong emboldened them in Xinjiang; Canadian corporate complicity in surveillance and monitoring technology today funds tomorrow’s architecture of social repression; and every year of increased trade and investment increases China’s leverage over our economy and raises the price of future political and moral decisions.

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After election day, Trudeau’s electoral silence and O’Toole’s pugnacity will cease to be a theoretical contrast. In government, unlike in platforms, actions speak louder than words. If Trudeau wins, he will have wide latitude to set a new China policy or continue to continue along his improvised course; if O’Toole wins, the expectations raised by his campaign commitments will be high and pressure to compromise them to appease Beijing and Bay Street will be intense.

Politics may be, as Bismarck said, the art of the possible, but what is possible often depends as much on the courage and moral clarity of governments as it does on external constraints. The difference between what the Conservatives are promising on China and what proves to be possible should they form government will be measured by the strength of Erin O’Toole’s backbone and those of the team around him.

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Howard Anglin was deputy chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper and served as principal secretary to Premier Jason Kenney in Alberta between May 2019 and September 2020. He is a postgraduate researcher in constitutional law at Oxford University.

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