I am dismayed by the current, troubled relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China. In my view, Canada has long had a special-friendship relationship with China, one that could and should be regarded as unique among nations. Now is a good time to remember it.
It’s a relationship largely built on a foundation of the courageous actions taken by two Canadians at critical periods in China’s modern history. One of them was a medical doctor, Norman Bethune, still revered, in China more than 80 years after he sacrificed his life to help the Chinese people resist Japanese invasion in 1938-39. The other is the late, former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, who led Canada to become one of the first western countries to recognize and establish diplomatic relations with the Communist government of the People’s Republic of China in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is not too much to say that decisive step by Canada was an important moment leading to China’s decision to open its doors to the wider world and begin its amazing economic growth.
In Bethune’s case especially, his actions were not well-appreciated at the time in Canada. But it was a different story in China where he soon became widely celebrated for his selfless, front-line, medical service on behalf of the Chinese people and the Communist 8th Route Army fighting the Japanese. He went to China and found his way to the war front in January, 1938. He died of blood poisoning and exhaustion in November, 1939, a few days after operating on a wounded Chinese soldier. It took much longer for Canada to recognize and celebrate Bethune’s heroism. The 1964 National Film Board of Canada documentary, Bethune, was instrumental in leading the way. I happened to see it quite by chance one day as a young man in a tiny movie theatre set up in a Canadian National Exhibition building shortly after its release. It was for me a personal epiphany. Bethune went right to the top of my role-model hero list and awakened my sense of pride about being Canadian, and a member of the wider, human family.
The New York Times had this to say at the time, in part, in an article about Pierre Trudeau’s visit to China in 1973, the first such visit by a Canadian Prime Minister: “Among Western nations, Canada was in the forefront of the trend toward diplomatic recognition of the Peking Government and there has been a wide and growing range of trade and other contacts between (Canada) and China for years, long before the United States began normalizing its own relations with the Chinese.
“Despite objections from some Americans, Canada sold hundreds of millions of bushels of wheat to the Chinese. In October of 1970, Canada formally recognized the China mainland Government and asked Taiwan to close its embassy in Ottawa.
“Six months later, the celebrated American Ping‐Pong team entered China, to be followed within a year by President Nixon. The Canadians often rankle at being cast in the role of Washington’s little brother, but they are proud that in this case they showed the way.”
And yet, so far as I can tell, this special legacy of friendship between Canada and China has largely gone unrecalled in the extensive public coverage of the current problem, and its negative impact on Canada-China relations. Otherwise, it surely should have been at the forefront as a mitigating factor in a dispute that may yet get worse before it gets better, if it does. And that would truly be a tragic outcome.
The trouble began with the December 1 arrest of Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, as she was changing planes in the west-coast, Canadian city of Vancouver en route to Mexico. The arrest was made by Canadian officials acting on a request from the U.S., pursuant to an extradition treaty between the two countries. Wanzhou, who has been granted bail by a court in the Canadian province of British Columbia, is wanted by the U.S. on fraud charges, in connection with an alleged breach of U.S. economic sanctions against Iran. She is currently living in one of two homes she owns in Vancouver while the lengthy extradition process gets underway. It could take months, or even years, before a Canadian court decides to allow her extradition to the U.S., or not, based on documentary information submitted by U.S. justice officials.
Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, the son of Pierre Trudeau, has said the government was alerted in advance that Wanzhou’s arrest was going to take place. But he explained the Canadian government could not intervene because the Canadian “rule of law” judicial system operates independently, without political interference. As well, Canada is bound by the terms of extradition treaties it has with numerous countries, including the U.S., to act on requests to arrest people wanted on charges in those countries.
Chinese officials have said Wanzhou was arrested illegally, demanded her release, and threatened reprisals. Initial threats were soon followed by the arrest of two Canadian men, a former diplomat, and an entrepreneur on suspicion of being a threat to China’s national security; on what basis, has yet to be divulged by Chinese officials. A Canadian woman who was also detained for alleged visa irregularities has since been released.
U.S. President Donald Trump undermined Canada’s position by suggesting in a typically ill-considered comment a week after Wanzhou was arrested that he might intervene with the U.S. Justice department to help reach a good trade deal with China; in other words, interfere politically with the judicial process. He thus seriously compromised Canada’s “rule of law” position.
“If I think it’s good for the country, if I think it’s good for what will be certainly the largest trade deal ever made – which is a very important thing – what’s good for national security – I would certainly intervene if I thought it was necessary,” Trump said in a wide-ranging interview with Reuters news agency in the Oval Office. In so doing he once again exposed his lack of understanding of basic democratic principles.
At least one of the two men still in custody in China is reportedly being held in harsh conditions, subjected to frequent interrogation, and allowed to see Canadian consular officials only once a month. Meanwhile, Wanzhou’s situation is much better: she is out of custody, though subject to bail strict bail conditions, including surrendering of her passport, which limit her freedom of movement and travel.
Canada’s long-established reputation among the Chinese people as a friend of their country has suffered. The Chinese leadership surely understands Canada’s “rule of law” explanation and could mitigate that public impact in China if it chose to do so. But that’s probably expecting too much in these days of major geo-political jockeying for positions of power on the dramatically changing world stage. What is the role for Canada, a country of 35 million people with a much less clout than the major actors? A bit player, of little consequence? China itself has sufficient historical cause to give Canada more credit than that.
In the best of all possible worlds, moral standing in the world should count for a lot, or put another way, the power that comes from being honest and speaking truth about how the human family best moves ahead together. That China and Canada are, or have been, friends is surely a good thing for both countries, and the world.
But, what do I know? I’m just an old potato, corn, bean, and squash farmer in a little place called Hope Ness, Ontario, Canada. I cultivate the precious soil, plant seeds, tend the emerging plants, and hope for a good harvest. And no matter who in the world comes down my driveway, I welcome them. That’s me, being Canadian.