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    Monday, March 30, 2009

    Beijing: The man in the bathtub is Lai Changxing. He's reading a newspaper that says “Canada Real Estate News” and “Job Service Centre.” This is how China's Southern Weekly newspaper – and many ordinary Chinese – envision life in Canada for China's most wanted man, someone accused by Beijing of heading a $10-billion smuggling empire before fleeing to Canada in 1999.

    With press like this, it's hard to believe sometimes, but there was a time – barely a decade ago – when this country's leaders referred to Canada as China's “best friend in the world.”

    That statement, made by then-Premier Zhu Rongji during one of those ballyhooed “Team Canada” business promotion trips of the Jean Chrétien era, was perhaps an overstatement made by a very polite host, but there was a bit of substance to it at the time. Canadian-Chinese friendship dates back to the fabled Norman Bethune's battlefield medical work during the Sino-Japanese war and has accelerated since 1970 when Canada recognized the People's Republic, two years before Richard Nixon dared travel to China. The Globe and Mail even played a role, opening the first Western newspaper office here in 1959, back when it was still called Peking. Most importantly, there are 1.4 million Canadians of Chinese descent.

    The Chrétien era was arguably the warmest stretch to date, in part because Canada's 20th prime minister was personal friends with former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. In 2005, someone named Paul Martin took it a step further by signing a “strategic partnership” agreement with visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and promising to double trade within 10 years.

    It took less than four years for all that warmth to almost completely disappear. The Stephen Harper era has been catastrophic in terms of Ottawa-Beijing ties, to the point that Canada has become almost irrelevant here. (Charles Burton, who once served as a Canadian diplomat in China, wrote a devastating critique of what's wrong that's well worth a read. Or check out Colin Freeze's report that appeared in The Globe and Mail.)

    In a sentence that summarized much of what Mr. Burton laid out over 25 pages, the Canada-China Business council recently warned that “Canada, despite its historic ties to China, is not seizing all of the opportunities China affords to investors and businesses.”

    The two biggest irritants were Canada's decision to award honourary citizenship to the Dalai Lama (which was a good idea) and Mr. Harper's decision to skip last year's Summer Olympics in Beijing (which wasn't).

    When asked why he takes stands that fly in the face of Canada's business interests in the world's largest market, Mr. Harper claimed that he doesn't want to sacrifice “important Canadian values” to the “almighty dollar.” Fine. And if Mr. Harper was going around the world defending human rights anywhere they were in danger, his hard-line China policy might make sense. But given his government's unquestioning support of Israel during its recent assault on the Gaza Strip (to pick one example that I have some familiarity with), it's clear that he's not going to win a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon.

    The problem Mr. Harper and his coterie have is they see the world as divided up into “good” countries (like the United States, Taiwan and Israel) and “bad ones” including China and much of the Muslim world. We take tough stands about Tiananmen Square and Tibet, but don't bat an eyelash at Guantanamo Bay or Gaza. If we had a consistent, moral foreign policy based on “Canadian principles,” the tough stand vis-à-vis Beijing would make sense. But we don't, and it doesn't.

    The fact is that only the pro-Israel lobby spends more time and money on lobbying Canadian parliamentarians than pro-Taiwan groups. (Taiwan was the top destination for freebie trips by MPs in 2007, and second to Israel last year), and so here we are. And Canada's relationship with the world's next superpower is in tatters.

    The truth is that we're in serious danger becoming a “bad” country in China's eyes as well. Our Prime Minister boycotted their coming-out party last summer, when even George W. Bush and Nicholas Sarkozy found ways to attend either the opening or closing ceremonies of the Olympics. We grant refuge to their most wanted man (albeit because the aforementioned Mr. Zhu repeatedly declared that Mr. Lai deserved to be executed, which is pretty much a death sentence in a country where courts usually do as their told). And we harangue them about domestic issues from across the ocean, rather than in quiet face-to-face talks where Mr. Harper speaking his mind might actually have some impact.

    The good news is that there are some inside the Canadian government that get it. We're in the process of opening six new trade missions in China, which should finally give us a diplomatic and commercial presence here worthy of the world's third-biggest – and fastest-growing – economy. And, for better or for worse, Trade Minister Stockwell Day is planning a visit here next month.

    That's all well and good. But the word I'm getting from various sources is that the “face”-conscious Chinese leadership is going to hold a grudge until Mr. Harper repents and makes a full-on official visit to Beijing. Mr. Harper has suggested that such a trip is on the horizon.

    I hate to agree with the Toronto Star, but for the sake of Canada's interests, and reputation, in China, the sooner he gets here, the better.

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