Saturday, December 9, 2017

Colby Cosh: Why Trudeau got taken for a ride in China

Colby Cosh: Why Trudeau got taken for a ride in China

The Chinese editorial's explicit message, which represents party doctrine, is that China has no need to meet Western criticisms of it

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers a speech at the Fortune Global Forum in Guangzhou, China, on Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017.Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press / THE CANADIAN PRESS
My favourite part of the fair has always been the sideshow. And when it comes to Justin Trudeau’s official visit to China, the sideshow definitely turned out to be the most interesting part of the proceedings. Interpreting the outcome of the visit involves a certain amount of old-fashioned Kremlinology, applied to both sides, but it seems fairly clear that Trudeau was gulled into providing Chinese leadership with some celebrity glamour in exchange for a big pile of nothing on Chinese-Canadian trade.
He came to China with hopes for progress on a future trade deal that would involve China accepting new labour, gender, and environment standards. But he collided with the newly aggressive Xi Jinping doctrine—a change in the official Chinese mood that insists on the country’s superpower status. China-watchers know that over the past year, in a process that culminated at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress in October, China has become more explicit, and more chauvinist, in claiming to pursue an independent, indigenous alternative model of economic and social progress.
At the Congress, President Xi—who is the formal Chinese head of state as well as the general secretary of the party—was admitted to the official Chinese communist pantheon alongside Mao and Deng Xiaoping. Whether he can hang on in the long term, or whether his self-exaltation is destined to be quietly forgotten after he leaves the stage, remains to be seen. But the anointment is a signal that Xi’s priorities are triumphant in the party for the moment.
China has dropped its lip service to liberal democracy
He has doubled down on total party control of Chinese society, and is explicit about pursuing wider Chinese regional and global influence. Lip service to the non-market principles of liberal democracy has ended, although “Xi Jinping Thought” does emphasize the rule of law as an antidote to the widespread corruption that, in the long run, could have been fatal to the prestige of the party. (This is, of course, the “rule of law” as its opposite—i.e., the rule of certain men.)
Western commentators on China have, for a long time, had an implicit vision of a re-emerging bipolar world, with China in the old place of Russia as an ideological challenger to Western democracies. Xi is taking them at their word. China’s aspirations are no longer to follow or imitate the West, but to out-compete it on its own terms, without any of the untidy, politically dis-unifying elements of Western life—independent universities, newspapers that aren’t trash, multiple political parties, and the like.
Given this background, Trudeau arguably arrived in China at exactly the wrong moment. Formal talks on a China-Canada free trade agreement would have been the first ever between China and a G7 country. It turned out that there was more value for Xi in slapping the hand of friendship. The Global Times, an organ of the party’s People’s Daily newspaper network, published a cranky English-language editorial in the midst of Trudeau’s visit.
Trudeau arguably arrived in China at exactly the wrong moment
The editorial attacked the “superiority and narcissism” of Canadian newspapers, as an alternative to jabbing the prime ministerial guest in the eye personally. But it is easy enough to read between the lines. “Trade between China and Canada is mutually beneficial, more significant than the ideology upon which the latter’s media has been focusing,” wrote the tabloid’s editor, Hu Xijin. “When Canada imports a pair of shoes from China, will Canada ask how much democracy and human rights are reflected in those shoes?”
The editorial gives patronizing “respect” to Canada’s need to find alternatives to U.S. markets—which, one has to admit, echoes a widely shared premise of our bilateral trade policy—but declares that “China is accustomed to uncertainty in its ties with Canada” and is prepared to wait us out.
Significantly, the article mentions a Globe and Mail item describing China as an “absolute dictatorship,” but does not really deny the charge so much as dismiss it as being beside the point. There is a Trumpian aspect to this Xi-ist (have we settled on an adjective yet?) mood shift. The Global Times’s explicit message, which almost by definition represents party doctrine, is that China has no need to meet Western press and civil society criticisms of China on their own terms—to descend to rebutting them.
The Chinese editorial attacked the narcissism of Canadian newspapers
Trudeau, to his credit, used a mission-ending press conference with Canadian reporters to make the anti-Xi case for liberal democracy as a complete package that must be swallowed whole. He fawned over the tourist journos quizzing him, giving a little speech about how free media play “an essential role, a challenge function” in creating good government. I am sure it made them feel good to hear it, but it was Chinese officialdom, and not the Canadian travellers with notebooks, that was the intended audience for those remarks.
The gamble behind Xi Jinping Thought is that China has proven the case against liberal democracy after 40 years of economic progress as a rigorous one-party state. At the same time, although China has grown richer, China is not yet rich. It is a country that, earlier this year, celebrated the mere adoption of standards that might possibly, conceivably, allow it to manufacture a decent ballpoint pen.
Trudeau’s talk about the free press was a hint that messy, fractious social institutions are a necessary component of ultimate economic power—that the Western ethos of free criticism, creative destruction, and social competition is indivisible. It has the advantage of being true. But Trudeau’s parting shot can only accomplish anything if there is a segment of communist China’s ruling class that is secretly aware of it.

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