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Can we actually get tough with China?

I haven’t liked our relationship with China for a long time.

My disillusionment started long before the coronavirus picked Wuhan as a launching point for its Around-the-World-in-80-Days tour. It started before the Chinese government arbitrarily arrested Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor almost two years ago in retaliation for Canada legally detaining Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the U.S.

No, my disillusionment started over a decade ago when Canadian politicians ­– federal, provincial, and municipal – started to tell themselves, and us, that doing business with the Communist Party of China, and the behemoth companies bankrolled by the Chinese government,  was a good thing for Canada.

What about human rights abuses in China, we asked? Not to worry, we press them every chance we get, they said. Will they change, we queried? Once they see how the West does business, they’ll change, we were told … again and again and again.

We weren’t convinced, but not sitting at the table where billions of dollars were changing hands, we were dismissed.

Hindsight is always 20/20, but foresight is only 20/20 when you get it right. A lot of us got it right a decade or so ago, but that doesn’t matter now … now that the rest of the country, and the world, is seeing how China really does business.

So, not ever having been on the China Love-in Boat, when I hear calls for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who offends everyone by trying to hard not to offend anyone, to use stronger language with China, I go, “yeah.”

When I see Alberta Premier Jason Kenney actually get tough with China by posting a photo celebrating Taiwan which, to the Chinese is akin to saying ‘Yo Mamma,’ and see him talk about ‘reshoring’ Canadian manufacturing, I kind of go “yeah.”

And, in light of news over the past couple of weeks that a Chinese company is buying a Canadian mining company in the NorthWest Territories, that an Ontario steel manufacturer was drastically underbid by a Chinese company to supply steel supports for a solar farm in southern Alberta, and that the B.C. government has taken over management of four long term care homes owned by a Chinese company, when I see the Conservatives push to ban the Chinese from buying key Canadian businesses, I kind of go “yeah.”

But then reality sets in.

While the Conservatives are pushing for Trudeau to take a harder stance against China, the reality is he’s is hamstrung in what he can do, thanks to what the Conservatives put in place more than a decade ago in their zeal to correct China’s human rights abuses by giving them carte blanche to do business in this country.

It’s ironic for the Conservatives to call for a ban on Chinese ownership of Canadian companies when it was the Conservatives who, in 2012 allowed the Chinese National Offshore Oil Corporation to purchase Nexen, formerly Occidental Petroleum, for $15 billion. At the time, it was China’s largest ever foreign acquisition. Concerns were raised, of course, and so then-Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised more stringent guidelines for foreign acquisitions in the oil sands … to come into effect after the sale.

That won’t stop the Liberals from approving the sale of the NorthWest Territories mine, nor did it stop its approval of the sale of B.C. long term care homes to Chinese companies … and undoubtedly more.

But the coup de grace is the Canada-China Foreign Investment Protection Act, signed into law in 2012 by the previous government where Kenney had a seat at the cabinet table. And, like all great transparent governments, it wasn’t until 2014 that Canadians learned what was actually in the agreement.

Firstly, we found the agreement is for 31 years … 23 years to go.

“China benefits much more than Canada, because of a clause allowing existing restrictions in each country to stay in place,” wrote Gus Van Harten, an Osgoode Hall law professor in 2014. “Chinese companies get to play on a relatively level field in Canada, while maintaining wildly arbitrary practices and rules for Canadian companies in China.”

But even more sinister, at least for us, Chinese companies will be able to seek redress against any laws passed by any level of government in Canada which threaten their profits. In other words, Kenney’s calls for ‘re-shoring’ manufacturing are likely contrary to an agreement he was a party to signing. It remains to be seen if China will seek compensation for this country’s recent zeal to manufacture its own personal protective equipment rather than take the defective ones it sent to us. If they do sue us, it will be decided by a panel of professional arbitrators and, according to the agreement, “may be kept secret at the discretion of the sued party.”

So while we would all like to see Trudeau take a harder stance on China, he’s been boxed into a corner by his predecessor … and the Conservatives know it.

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