National Post (Latest Edition)
N.S. premier wants to ‘learn’ from China
‘Not our role to tell someone they’re wrong’
Amid growing calls for a tougher Canadian stance toward China, outgoing Nova Scotia Premier Stephen Mcneil had some provocative advice recently, suggesting politicians here should actually avoid reproaching Beijing.
The federal government is grappling with China’s imprisonment of two Canadians, a clampdown on political freedoms in Hong Kong and the sweeping suppression of the country’s Uyghur minority.
But rather than chastising the People’s Republic, Canada ought to focus on fostering closer ties, Liberal Mcneil said in an interview with a business group honouring his China engagement efforts.
“It’s not our role to go in and tell someone else they’re wrong,” he said on the Canada China Business Council (CCBC) video production late last month.
“Our role is to go in and work with them and learn.
“I’m grateful and proud of where I live. I’m proud to be a Canadian,” he added. “but Chinese people are proud to be Chinese. And they have a way of doing things. Let’s go learn. Let’s teach each other. And let us grow economic ties.
“If you respect each other and you respect the views and values of each other, all other aspects of your relationship will grow.”
Mcneil is retiring from politics and handing over the reins to Iain rankin, the new Liberal leader. rankin could not be reached for comment on whether he would follow a similar approach to China.
The current premier’s remarks were part of an hourlong tribute to his success in dramatically expanding the province’s trade with China. Canada’s ambassador to beijing and the Chinese ambassador to Canada both praised the premier in pre-recorded statements.
but two former ambassadors and a human-rights activist blasted Mcneil’s words as naïve pandering to an increasingly autocratic regime.
The comments are “particularly shameful” given China’s “genocidal behaviour” toward the uyghurs, trampling of democracy in Hong Kong and treatment of Canadian “hostages,” said david Mulroney, ambassador from 2009 to 2012.
“The remarks actually sound like something that China’s premier might say to a room full of gullible foreigners,” he said via email. “We don’t expect our politicians to insult other countries, but we do expect them to have the courage to speak honestly about major human rights abuses.”
Guy Saint-jacques, ambassador from 2012 to 2016, said he encouraged Mcneil to develop a China business strategy for Nova Scotia, but noted times have changed.
“I think that we have learned a lot more in the last two years on what is really taking place in China and it is now impossible to give the benefit of the doubt to the Communist Party of China,” he said. “Otherwise, you run the risk of being severely judged by history.“
Ivy Li of Canadian Friends of Hong Kong said politicians should not be negating our “basic moral standards” to win business opportunities.
“Chinese people are proud to be Chinese,” she said. “but they are not proud to live under dictatorial rule
and not proud to be under surveillance 24/7. They pretend they don’t care because they’ll be jailed if they do.”
Paul evans, a China expert at ubc, was less critical, saying that Mcneil successfully built trade ties using a “textbook” China strategy. but there are serious concerns about whether that is sustainable amid souring Canadian opinion about China, “ice-cold” relations and a more repressive and assertive regime in beijing, he said.
In the virtual “fireside chat” with CCBC’S executive director, Mcneil discussed his government’s work to bolster trade with China, saying it had all but “transformed” the province’s economy in a few years.
Nova Scotia had close to $1 billion in exports to China in 2019, a five-fold increase since Mcneil’s Liberals came to power in 2013. The lobster business led the way, with two 747 air-cargo flights a week shipping live crustaceans to China. Meanwhile, hundreds of Chinese students are attending Nova Scotia’s universities.
He said that success came in part because of the eight trips he made to China, one of them in late 2019 generating controversy as it came months after the detention of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. In a separate meeting with China’s then-ambassador, Mcneil failed to raise the “two Michaels” issue.
Kovrig, a former diplomat, and Spavor, a businessman, were arrested shortly after the detention in Vancouver of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on a u.s. extradition request. The incarceration of the “two Michaels” is widely seen as an act of reprisal by China.
The premier made scant mention of such tensions. When asked about that strife toward the end of the interview, he acknowledged there are “issues” and said Canadians need to stand up for their values and democracy. but he said “isolationism and protectionism” has never worked. “In order for this relationship to grow, we’ll have to understand each other’s culture, and embrace it,” he said. “you can’t ignore the biggest market in the world. you gotta go and we were pleased to go.”
In his statement recorded before the Mcneil interview, current ambassador dominic barton said the premier was a trailblazer in building “fabric and mutual understanding” between the countries.
Cong Peiwu, China’s ambassador here, praised Mcneil for forging close ties with Guangdong and Fujian provinces and voiced hope he would continue his efforts after leaving office. but he noted there is a “severe winter period” in relations, and suggested it’s up to Canada to mend the rift.