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The China Challenge

Huhua Cao
Vivienne Poy

Evolution of Canada-China relations

Chapter 2. Canada’s Staying Power: A Diplomat’s View

Fred Bild

Texte intégral

1It is a particularly unrewarding task to try to find patterns in Canada’s relations with China. To maintain that they evolve through a sort of subconscious thread leading from discovery to mutual exploitation, through disappointment, before eventually attaining a level of “maturity,” results in nothing more than an academic exercise for ordering ephemeral conclusions. Besides, as Norman Bethune, Canada’s most famous adventurer into war-torn China, demonstrated, such searches for leitmotifs are often founded on preconceived notions (in his case, political ones). Using solid 19th-century logic, the great doctor saw any country’s venture into another as being rooted in imperialistic urges. According to Bethune, it normally got into gear after a succession of missionary explorations, followed by capitalist entrepreneurs, who were soon afterwards reinforced by military and diplomatic personnel. Here I will seek to show that such linear reasoning had nothing to do with the relationship as it evolved between Canada and the Orient, least of all China, but rather that what seemed to dominate most often were spontaneous initiatives, each with its own specific underlying motivations, depending on the time and the chief actors involved.

2During my stay in China I discovered, however, that the imperialistic mindset that Bethune described did find some echo in some of our Chinese counterparts. The best example of this occurred several years after my departure, when a PhD student in 2004, at the Beijing Institute of Contemporary International Relations showed me what he called a policy document of the 1960s, which indicated that in earlier times Canada’s Asian policies were viewed as nothing less than part and parcel of US strategy for the encirclement of China. As he read them out to me in translation, these included Canada’s assistance to nations in Southeast Asia, its participation in the Korean War and subsequently in the International Commissions for Supervision and Control in Indochina, its recognition of Taiwan, and even its acceptance of immigrants from Hong Kong. I’m not sure I was entirely successful in disabusing this young researcher of this interpretation but I tried to explain to him that, with carefully designed Ptolemaic epicycles, this sort of reasoning could purport to show contradictory policies—such as Canada’s uninterrupted relations with Communist Cuba, its outspoken criticism of US policy in Vietnam in the 1960s, and even its negotiation of diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic long before the Nixon–Kissinger initiative—as nothing more than manoeuvres inspired by Washington.

3As a former practitioner of the art of diplomacy, rather than as an academic, I am struck by the ways in which categories applied to human endeavours can confuse just as much as they can elucidate. Academics, presumably, are engaged in combing through the remnants of past activity to detect the true roots or causes of contemporary reality. The practitioners, primarily preoccupied with the here and now, delve deep into their archives only occasionally for clues to present-day problems. Yet I find that, when discussing yesterday’s or today’s China, both worlds, the more practical as well as the more detached, tend to examine the subject with far too little regard for the past and within excessively restricted frameworks. My experience tends to show that, contra the logic of grand strategy or overarching schemes, Canada’s relationship with China has been conducted from simultaneous, overlapping and sometimes contradictory motives, and managed with the best of intentions by harried but professional diplomatic staff. This visceral knowledge resists the glib categorization of academic researchers. That the short history of relations between Canada and China might be driven by shifting contingencies and irregular interventions of chance is a view that many seekers after patterns eschew.

4Having spent some time in recent years examining various epochs of Canada’s relationship with China, I am struck by the diversity of motives and approaches of all those steeped in that highly eventful and turbulent country. I suppose that, if one were to view the relationship from the viewpoint of view of missionaries, government officials, politicians, business people or ideologically driven activists, one could easily come up with handy labels to describe each group’s distinct motivation. The examples provided would, however, reflect much generalization and selectivity. On the question of recognition of the People’s Republic, for example, Lester Pearson seems to have been prompted initially by a desire to move quickly, before US policy became too unyielding and enshrined non-recognition as a NATO doctrine. His successors on this subject, Paul Martin Sr. and then Pierre Trudeau, proceeded according to their own calculations of Canada’s interests. The former was determined to convince Washington to take the bull by the horns, rather than wait for the Third World vote at the United Nations to seat the People’s Republic over US objections. The latter, on the other hand, was confident from the outset that it was a matter of first changing the mindset within the Ottawa policy establishment and then finessing the US position. One could argue that each of these three actors faced different situations when they played their roles on the stage, and that they faced three different sets of obstacles and political climates. It is nonetheless clear that, while they all pursued the same objective, their personal motivations were significantly different.

5Similar differences can be found among diplomats or other government officials, although their professional requirement of obedience to their political masters usually serves to paper over any individual distinction in personal outlooks. Even between activists of the same ideological persuasion, such as James Endicott and Norman Bethune, one can find serious differences of approach and basic motivation. This is not to say that comparisons are odious, but rather, more simply, that lumping people together into ready-made categories is a futile exercise. The same applies to the “phases” of the Sino-Canadian relationship.

Early Contacts

6One can go back to the earliest trans-Pacific contacts and see that the unpredictable often played a determinant role. I sometimes wonder whether mere accident interfered with the promotion of a more robust channel of communications and commerce from our western shores. After all, After all, the earliest recorded trade between Canada and China was that of the Haida Gwai otter pelts worn by Captain James Cook’s crew on their way to the Bering Sea, who would not have pursued their voyage to the China coast if their captain had not been murdered during their stopover in Hawaii. Yet it was as a result of this contact that the Hudson’s Bay Company joined the fur trade with China and that, as early as 1788, a certain Captain John Meares started to import Chinese labourers to the west coast of Canada (see Gough 2000). On the other hand, political timetables and sheer venality contributed to the development of “the Chinese fact” in Canada. Such speculation does not lead far, but it does serve to illustrate the web of disasters, hardships and determination that fashioned the beginnings of our dealings with the people of China.

7Following these initial contacts, a whole century went by before Canada brought in thousands of Chinese labourers to do the hardest and most dangerous work in the construction of the western segment of our transcontinental railway. It happened, again quite by accident, just in time for the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to partake of an unexpected bonanza from the transport of Chinese silks headed for New York and European markets. In the mid-19th century a silkworm disease had devastated silk manufacture in Europe and, as a result, textile mills were competing for rapid and low-cost supplies of Chinese silks. With the completion of the rail link to Vancouver, the cross-Canada route to New York turned out to be the fastest. It was a trade that saw the vessels of the CPR’s own White Empress Line unloading tonnes of bales of silk onto newly outfitted “silk trains” in Vancouver, to be sped virtually non-stop to Montreal and New York in four days flat, an exploit that lasted into the 1940s, to the great profit of the CPR (but with scarcely a mention in our history books). On the other hand, if white Canadians, newly settled in British Columbia, had not given vent to their rabid racist tendencies at the time, Canada might well have had far greater numbers of hard-working Chinese and Japanese, and their industry and enterprise might have helped the country avoid much of the economic depression of the end of the 19th century.

8Such questions abound throughout the evolution of our early foreign relations and, to my mind, underline the random nature of much of these. Most of the time, there was no one, neither actor nor thinker, who had any notion that they were participating in what was to be an ongoing link with a part of the world that would one day be of critical importance to Canada.

Governments and Asian Trade

9Although there was a significant missionary presence in China, and there were even a few industrialists there by the late 19th century, it was not until the beginning of the 20th century that solid foreign relations (“hard power” as opposed to “soft power”) started to affect the relationship. Not surprisingly, the Anglo-Japanese alliance of 1902, of which Canada, inescapably, was a participant, had a direct effect on relations with China. While the alliance provided the coast of British Columbia with some Japanese naval protection during the First World War, this was not judged reason enough after the war for admitting sizeable numbers of Japanese migrants seeking employment. By implication, the already strong rejection of Chinese labourers was intensified. Objections to the treaty of 1902, which was renewed in 1905 and 1911, eventually led Prime Minister Arthur Meighen to propose that it be replaced by a multilateral agreement. He thereby opened the way to the Washington naval and disarmament conferences of 1921–22. Thus the British role in the Far East was responsible, at least in part, not only for the strengthening of anti-Asian sentiment in British Columbia, but also for Canada’s discovery of the joys and challenges of multilateralism and Anglo-Saxon solidarity. Both of these starting points turned out to be important for the evolution of some of the long-term characteristics of Canada’s foreign policy, even though at this stage they were still some distance away from guiding Canada’s relations with Asia, and particularly with China.

10Blocking immigration and promoting trade were the dominant themes of Canadian relations with the whole of Asia throughout the first half of the 20th century, but the advent of the Great Depression soon made the latter a moot point. The flare-ups created by Japan in Manchuria and elsewhere in China commanded a certain amount of attention from Canadians concerned about foreign affairs, particularly as there were obvious divergences emerging between British and US policies in the region, but as the spectre of another war in Europe loomed ever larger, Canadian eyes were riveted eastward. Apart from a small segment of public opinion on the west coast, the country lost interest in the Pacific theatre and would heave a sigh of relief after Pearl Harbor ensured that the United States took on that burden. Canada’s contribution of around 6,000 soldiers to the war effort in the Pacific was in no way comparable to the scale of its commitment to the European theatre.

Canadian Activism in Asia

11In the post-war euphoria Canadians hardly noticed at first that their country had emerged as the second strongest economy in the world. The fact that Canada also had considerable political influence was, however, a reality that Lester Pearson and his small cohort of talented Foreign Service officers were not slow to exploit, although it required agility, sang froid and resourcefulness to do so. It started in Japan, where a select group of Asia specialists played a very active role in advising General Douglas MacArthur on the reconstruction and democratization of the country. More generally, however, the main institutions through which Canada conducted its post-war relations with Asia were the very institutions it had helped to shape: the United Nations and the Commonwealth, and the latter’s newly minted Colombo Plan. If Canada had not played a significant part in these developments, its subsequent outlook on East Asia would no doubt have been quite different, yet it cannot be said that these initiatives all fit together in an overall plan. They happened piecemeal. Only when one looks at them together, many years later, can one propose that there was a theme to all this “helpful fixer” activity, as Pierre Trudeau labelled it many years later.

12Again, if the Korean War had not erupted when it did, in June 1950, Canada’s relations with China would have been quite different throughout the Cold War (Ronning 1974, p. 179). Indeed, some claim that the Korean emergency need only have started six weeks later for Canada’s position in relation to China to have been radically altered. That strikes me as farfetched. Mutual recognition might well have been established with Beijing at that time, but it would probably not have hindered or delayed our participation in the UN-approved multinational force under US command. It certainly would not have been a propitious beginning for renewed bilateral relations. Even though it might have given Canada easier access to Beijing as the war progressed, it is doubtful that it would have changed much in the déroulement of that war. As it was, Lester Pearson failed to dissuade MacArthur from crossing the 38th Parallel and heading towards the Yalu River, nor could he restrain the latter’s nuclear sabre-rattling against China (Pearson 1973, pp. 159–64). Much more evident is the fact that Canada’s Cold War stance, in spite of its insistence that the North Atlantic alliance had no relevance to East Asia, reflected a mindset that determined a readiness to bear arms in the face of open aggression against non-Communist regimes. In other words, the Cold War became the thematic backdrop for much of Canada’s intentions and actions in the Far East (Stairs 1974, pp. 128–30).

How Did We Get Here?

13If there are trends to be drawn from this brief outline of Canada’s meandering into the politics of East Asia, they certainly do not denote a determined attempt at developing a Canadian policy toward China, much less a strategy. The 1950s, and more specifically the Korean conflict, marked an hour of awakening. For the first time, Canadians were forced to conclude that the British and US approaches were not reconcilable. Moreover, neither seemed to fit into any scenario that would suit Canada’s objective of keeping the situation from deteriorating into a long-term confrontation between East and West. In particular, Canadian leaders came to the conclusion that the US approach risked spreading war to China and the rest of Asia. In 1954, when the first Taiwan Straits crisis erupted, Ottawa found itself pleading that Quemoy and Matsu did in fact belong to the People’s Republic, which represented no threat to the West (Geoffrey Pearson, p. 132). In September the same year, when the United States created SEATO, a collective defence pact modelled on NATO with the Philippines, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand, France, Taiwan and the United Kingdom, Canada’s participation was not sought, nor did Canada wish for it. By this time the Canadian government had begun to have serious doubts about the wisdom of the US strategy in Asia.

14In less than twenty years, tumultuous though they were, Canada’s view of East Asia had gone from a passing interest, through a distant concern, to a current and persistent headache. The Geneva Conference held in 1954 to settle the conflict in former French Indochina seemed for a moment to hold out a promise of some détente in Cold War animosity. It was short-lived, however, and it saddled Canada with a role about which decision-makers had serious reservations. The three International Commissions for Supervision and Control for Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, on which Canada was to serve alongside India and Poland, were not under UN direction, and the United States had made it clear that it would not consider itself bound by the Commissions’ findings or recommendations. In addition to the cost in human resources, the resultant delay in opening official relations with China was even more regrettable. It is ironic to note here that not long after Lester Pearson had been subjected to a violent harangue by President Lyndon B. Johnson at his Texas ranch, Pearson’s foreign minister, Paul Martin Sr., undertook yet one more vain effort to seek an acceptable form of recognition of the People’s Republic (English 1991, p. 141).

Recognition at last

15Both the Indochina fiasco and the recognition conundrum had to await the arrival of new actors on the scene before they could be tackled conclusively. For Canada, the principal new figure was Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Caught up in the new optimism of the 1960s and contemplating, somewhat prematurely, a radically changed world, Trudeau called for a rethinking of Canadian foreign policy. He imposed a new questioning of previous stances: Had previous policies been too narrowly defined by fear of the Soviet menace? Had Canada been hoodwinked into seeking security under US leadership? Had Canada been too oblivious to the overbearing friendliness of its southern neighbour? These questions underlay Trudeau’s prescription of a foreign policy rooted in domestic concerns. Economic growth and the quality of life were objectives that were thus dutifully enshrined in a (multicoloured) “White Paper,” Foreign Policy for Canadians (see Department of External Affairs 1970). It caused quite a stir when it was published in 1970, especially since it implied criticism of Pearson’s approach and policies.

16In the final analysis, however, despite some trendy new management jargon in the paper and some exaggerated calls for new forms of action, Trudeau’s government innovated in only two areas: China and NATO. The latter generated much heat in Ottawa and other capitals, but in the end resulted in no major change. The former was successful and at long last normalized Canada’s relationship with China, just in time, some would say, to keep Richard Nixon from taking all the credit for China’s opening to the West. Canadians have been understandably upset that in the United States and, indeed, the world over, the Nixon–Kissinger bombshell completely obscured Canada’s achievement in clearing the way to ending the isolation of the People’s Republic. Why did Canada get credit for this pioneering work only in Beijing and among a handful of Canadian scholars who study diplomatic history? The main reason is, of course, that the repercussions of Nixon’s move marked a sea change in US geopolitical strategy and the first step towards a détente of a different order than that which was proving so tenuous with the Soviet Union in Europe. Hardly a single US commentator noticed that, by the time Nixon visited China, the Canadian Embassy in Beijing had been open for business for more than a year. It took Washington and Beijing another seven years before they were able to upgrade their liaison offices in each other’s capitals to full-fl edged embassies. In the meantime, no fewer than sixty-six other countries had established relations with Beijing, most of them using the Canadian “take note” formula regarding Taiwan.

17The United States, of course, had to amend the Canadian formula, not only because of the pressures from its Taiwan lobby, but also because it sought to maintain most of the military ties it had forged with Taiwan since 1949. The Japanese, who negotiated recognition in 1972, were up against even more formidable difficulties resulting from the tragic past of their actions against China from 1894 to 1945, and the need to sign a peace treaty. The latter was negotiated over six years after the exchange of ambassadors in 1972. If one looks closely at these two agreements, both of them much more elaborate than the one with Canada that was their forerunner, what shines through clearly is the shared Japanese and US objective of preserving as much as they could of their former special ties to Taiwan. Both countries have since succeeded in doing so, to a certain extent, but only in exchange for a more clear-cut recognition of Beijing’s claims to the island. It turned out, some twenty years later, to be a non-trivial point, since those who followed the Canadian formula are now in no way committed to withholding recognition from an eventual independent Taiwan. Such are the dynamics of diplomacy.

18However world-shaking all this may have seemed at the time, there were hardly any immediate changes to be seen in bilateral relations, either after the Canadian breakthrough or after the signing of the Shanghai Communiqué by the People’s Republic and the United States. When Trudeau undertook his first official visit to China, in 1973, the Chinese media greeted him warmly as a lao pengyou, an “old friend.” Agreements were signed for the opening of consular missions, as well as for trade under most-favoured-nation terms. None of this, however, was to have any immediate effect. China first had to struggle through the last years of the Cultural Revolution, and the changing of the guard after the deaths of Zhou Enlai and Mao. It was not until Deng Xiaoping’s reforms got under way that economic relations started to move into a higher gear. In 1983–1984 agreements were signed on launching aid through the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and on the protection of investments. Trade accelerated, and investments grew in such fields as telecommunications, hydroelectric power and mining technology. Canadair and de Havilland, Alcan and Nortel all made their way into the Chinese mainland. The days when all trade had to be conducted at the semi-annual Canton Trade Fair were gone. The barometer for the relationship between Canada and China was at last set fair.

Tiananmen and After

19All of this seemed to come crashing down with the disastrous events in and around Tiananmen Square in June 1989. The growth of trade slowed, investments from Canada plummeted, and non-commercial exchanges entered a difficult phase. Most of China’s newfound partners, at least those outside Asia, asked themselves whether China was a country with which they could build a long-term future. On learning of Deng’s subsequent intransigence, many people called for China to be punished. Canada did not follow the example of some of its allies by imposing significant trade sanctions, but it did curtail some CIDA programmes, especially those involving government agencies such as the security services and the police. Visits by senior officials were kept to a minimum and ministerial visits were ruled out for the time being (see Clark 1989). In Chinese eyes, however, Canada’s most unpardonable act was to declare all Chinese studying in Canada at that time eligible for landed immigrant status. According to a classified briefing paper prepared by the Department of External Affairs in 1990, over eighty percent of them seized the opportunity thus offered.

20I arrived in Beijing to take up my assignment as Ambassador in October 1990, in the midst of this period of deliberate coldness. It happened to be the week of the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations. The only instructions I had were to refrain from any celebratory statements: “marking” the event was all we were doing. I couldn’t help asking myself whether this was what we could have foreseen in the days when we were elaborating China policy pursuant to the Trudeau initiative. Had no one entertained the notion that Chinese reforms might someday lead to upheavals and that the regime would resort to violence to retain its hold on power? Indeed, I do recall some memorandums of the early 1980s in which such possibilities were raised, but Deng’s smiling face and his reassuringly pragmatic approach to modernization, combined with the rise of Gorbachev, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Central and Eastern Europe, had mesmerized most Western governments into the belief that Communist regimes, on every continent, were on the way out.

21One year earlier I had had the privilege of attending the political meetings of the annual G7 summit, that time in Paris. When it came to discussions of how to show disapproval of what had happened in Beijing just a few weeks before, there was a consensus that each member country should institute some sort of sanctions; each being left to choose the type and intensity. The United States was unwilling to limit its military cooperation with China because it did not wish to jeopardize its listening posts on Soviet activities to the north and west of China. The British, fearful of how Beijing might react to the gigantic public demonstrations in Hong Kong, sought to keep their own reaction muted. Listening to the earnest and shocked entreaties from Margaret Thatcher and George Bush Sr., and the extensive discussions that followed, none of my Canadian colleagues nor I imagined that within a very short time this entente would be broken by more than one of the participants. In fact, two weeks before the meeting in Paris the United States had already secretly sent two emissaries, National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, to assure Deng that President Bush wished for the close relations between China and the United States to continue (Suettinger, pp. 79–83). Less than five months later, the United Kingdom sent its own secret envoy on a similar mission. Japan, on the other hand, reluctant from the outset to impose any sanctions at all, was the first to lift the economic and aid restrictions it had imposed, and did so by the end of the year. What happened to the mood of the Pearson and Trudeau years, when one dared to dream of “participatory internationalism”?

A “Mature Relationship”

22Up to that point Canada had caused the Chinese government few problems, indeed none that had raised more than the occasional eyebrow in the Chinese leaders’ compound in Zhongnanhai. No one there harboured any serious doubts about Canada’s sincerity in striving to develop ever more cooperative relations. During some ministerial visits, and even during the visit of Governor General Jeanne Sauvé in 1987, qualms had been expressed regarding human rights, but never with much insistence, and certainly with no implication that the subject might harm the future of our relations. All that had changed on June 4, 1989, and bilateral ties entered a new, more mature phase. Maturity is usually an irreversible process, but does it mean that previous levels of trust and cooperation can never be recovered? The future was to answer both “Yes” and “No” to this question.

23At this juncture, I must confess that the official coolness in our relations paradoxically afforded me and my team at the Embassy a certain latitude in action that we would not have had under the more hectic pace of bilateral visits and incessant requests for information that had characterized the period before Tiananmen. I was able to proceed without interruption to get acquainted with my staff, learn the special features of our mission’s modus operandi, and call on many diplomatic colleagues, several of whom were in Beijing on their third or fourth assignment. All the Western-oriented ones gave me valuable insight into the ways in which they were coping with the strained relations between our hosts and their respective headquarters. Least expected was the eagerness with which major government officials, including Politburo members, were prepared to grant me interviews, not simply to reiterate the message I had been hearing loud and clear since landing at the airport—that “China’s reforms and opening to the outside will continue unabated”—but also to encourage any contact and activity that could give the appearance of normal relations and business as usual.

24Executives from the relatively few Canadian firms that had remained active in China during these troubled times were delighted to find that, with less than forty-eight hours’ notice, I could take them to call on virtually any Chinese minister to make representations on whatever venture they were encountering difficulties with. Years later, when things had returned to “normal,” they referred to this period as the “halcyon” days. Relations did not, of course, return to normal that quickly, nor for that matter did China’s economic development, but by 1991 trade figures were up from the previous lows. Our CIDA officers managed without difficulty to reorient their objectives so as to favour more grassroots activities and even the immigration branch was able, through the drop in two-way traffic, to refurbish its appallingly overcrowded and understaffed premises.

25I soon became aware, however, that the mutual striving for “normal relations” was a two-edged sword. The Chinese side could hardly maintain for long their extremely polite and productive demeanour while bemoaning that there were no high-level visits between our two countries. On our side, I asked myself how one could continue to take advantage of this positive atmosphere while trying to introduce human rights issues into bilateral discussions. I wrote in my diary at the time:

The mission is beginning to work at cross purposes. The political section remains eager to track human rights violations, while the trade section calls for discretion, lest their trade promotion activities be hampered. Tomorrow I’m to make a démarche on the Minister of Industry on behalf of a Canadian company that feels aggrieved by the uneven playing field on which it is having to face other foreign competitors. Obviously that’s not the moment to bring up the forthcoming trial of a well-known dissident. (See Bild, p.4).

26Nonetheless, the political section of the Embassy kept close track of the human rights situation, particularly as the dissidents of 1989 were brought to trial one after the other. We made representations to the Foreign Ministry and lost few opportunities to impress upon our various Chinese interlocutors the opprobrium that China was reaping through the harsh sentences being meted out. I even took the message to the provinces, figuring that local officials would be more susceptible to such representations. At the outset, I quite relished the exercise and, while sitting next to some local potentate at a lavish banquet, would whip out a list of political prisoners alleged to be in his province’s jails. This rude behaviour tended to startle them, but only rarely elicited anything other than the standard reply: “the only people in prison are criminals, not political activists, and local governments cannot intervene or even raise questions about names on a list, since that would infringe upon the independence of the judiciary.” The experience was sometimes amusing, usually a bit chilling, and always without any noticeable effect. My efforts to enlist the cooperation of like-minded members of the diplomatic corps in this exercise were largely unsuccessful. A few tried to emulate my antics, only to become disillusioned. At a more junior level, however, we did manage to get a cooperative tracking and light harassment activity organized. Stalwart young officers from a few Western embassies took turns making early morning visits to the Ministry of Justice, where the day’s upcoming trials were posted. Whenever a known dissident’s name was on the list, one of these courageous young diplomats would knock at the courthouse door and ask for permission to attend. Rebuffed every time, they nevertheless persisted for several months until the series of trials came to a close.

27While this painful internal process was going on, the smiling face of China was being beamed to all its neighbours. The foreign minister, Qian Qichen, undertook a series of visits to all the countries of the region. Mutual recognition was restored with Indonesia and Singapore, and diplomatic relations were established with Brunei. China was now in position to seek the status of a dialogue partner of the Association of South-East Asian Nations. (See Deng and Yang, pp. 113-116). North Korea was manoeuvred into accepting the “two Koreas” solution for membership in the United Nations. India agreed to resume boundary talks (the only ones that would not be settled definitively). Vietnam finally accepted China’s terms for normalizing relations. South Korea switched its recognition from Taipei to Beijing. Cross-border trading posts were opened with Russia and the recently independent republics of Central Asia. Qian Qichen was able to boast, in a speech to the diplomatic corps at the Foreign Ministry in June 1991, that his “policy of good neighbourliness has created harmony throughout Asia.”

28Meanwhile, Canadian policy on China remained unmoving, not to say stagnant. Instructions from Ottawa became less and less clear. Rumours reached us of divisions within the Cabinet, with the ministers bearing economic portfolios calling, though not loudly, for a resumption of high-level visits for the benefit of the business community. The Canadian foreign minister at the time, Barbara McDougall, who seemed to have made China-bashing her favourite pastime, insisted on keeping China in Coventry (according to one of the first high-level Canadian dignitaries to resume contact with China in 1992). None of this was enough to frustrate my team of exceptionally enterprising officers, except on such rare occasions as when three Members of Parliament, Beryl Gaffney (Liberal), Svend Robinson (NDP) and Geoff Scott (Progressive Conservative), descended on Tiananmen Square with the deliberate intention of creating a scene. Disregarding our clear instructions not to organize any kind of public event unless they wanted to land in jail, they went ahead and invited foreign media, through open-line telephone calls, to attend their placing of a wreath in memory of the victims of June 4. I won’t recount our representations at the Foreign Ministry except to say that, after the trio had been expelled manu militari, I was able for several months thereafter to embarrass my hosts with veiled references to the high regard that Canadians have for elected representatives visiting us from afar. The area hit hardest, however, by this frosty Canadian approach was arts and culture. The business community in Ottawa still had enough clout to keep some export credit assistance alive, and CIDA had managed through bureaucratic momentum to keep most of its programmes in China afloat, but when it came to publications on Canada, orchestral tours or literary exchanges, budgets were at zero.

29What distinguishes Foreign Service staff in the field from desk-bound bureaucrats at headquarters is that the former are not afraid to use their ingenuity. In this case, they encouraged Canadian study centres at some twenty-two Chinese universities to undertake translations of major Canadian works or organize scholarly conferences on Canadian subjects. They even managed to stage a Sino-Canadian conference, in Spring 1992, to discuss modern media challenges. A dozen Canadian producers, directors and distributors were brought together for a week with their Chinese counterparts. They came away with at least an inkling of the market opportunities then opening in China. The Chinese, for their part, gained a better idea of what could be obtained from “Hollywood North.”

Take-Off Resumed

30It was pure coincidence that this flight into the media arts happened as the Chinese economy regained its thrust. I wrote the following in my diary in 1992:

Ever since May I’ve been involved almost full-time in commercial matters.... the number of Canadian visitors ...seems to be doubling by the week.... is this how trends affect policy? deals with public relations only when nothing more immediate is at hand? ...In the commercial area trends appear so much more clearly.... after all, what was the impetus that brought the Canadian business community back to this side of the Pacific? ...hardly the speeches I made to Chambers of Commerce across Canada.... no, it was the eighty-eight-year-old Deng Xiaoping’s “Nan Xun,” his grand tour of the South, that did it. He exclaimed that the results of market reforms were spectacular and must be continued. Business took off again almost immediately and the investment queue never slackened again. The “almost” in the preceding sentence denotes a six-week hiatus between reports of Deng’s declarations in the Guangdong press and an acknowledgement in the People’s Daily. Future historians will tell us what occurred in that period.... the battles at the apex of the hierarchy must have been epic ...but it was a fine example of power, timing, and skill at staging a media event.

31The brakes that had been put on economic reform in the immediate aftermath of Tiananmen were suddenly loosened. By the end of 1992 bilateral trade was at a high of 4.6 billion dollars, with capital goods accounting for more than half the total. Canadian investments had doubled over the previous year.

32With all these positive developments, yet another serendipitous occurrence put us on a new human rights track. In early 1993, some of our Chinese university acquaintances suggested that we give some thought to joint university research projects in the area of institutional reform and democratic development. The idea apparently had support in inner councils in Beijing. The five scholars eventually chosen, supported by CIDA funds, left for a six-week study trip to examine Canada’s democratic institutions and practices. The report they submitted to the State Council seemed to have had some effect, since it was mentioned to me on several occasions by senior officials whom I met at social functions. In the planning of China’s fiscal reforms, they said, the Canadian tax system was being referred to frequently. It was still some distance from more liberating subjects, such as freedom of assembly or habeas corpus, but we thought it might be a start. Lo and behold, a few weeks later the Royal Society of Canada was invited to send a group of scholars to China to discuss “the transition from feudalism to the rule of law.” This was to be the beginning of an ongoing dialogue among officials and experts on how to modernize state institutions, the dialogue that the present Canadian government unfortunately decided to cancel “for lack of results.” It is not for me to comment on the progress in these exchanges after I was no longer on the scene, but what seems to have been overlooked in the hasty condemnation of one of the more successful projects of enlightenment is that these first steps of 1993 led in the same year to the training of Chinese judges at the Université de Montréal. Since then, according to CIDA (reporting in May 2010), more than 275,000 prosecutors, judges and criminal lawyers have received training in the application of Canadian and international legal and human rights standards. Only simplistic or ideologically twisted reasoning could refuse to recognize that such exposure of future generations of Chinese jurists will inevitably have an effect on China’s reform of its legal system. I never encountered anyone in China who rejected the idea that legal and political modernization was necessary: the question to which no one had ready answers was how it was to come about. It is precisely this question of “how” that these programmes were addressing.

33At the same time, Canada took initiatives to extend China’s involvement in multilateral affairs. The Embassy pursued a dialogue at the highest levels of the Foreign Ministry on questions such as nuclear non-proliferation, regional security and restraints on the export of missile technology, as well as on the future of China’s participation in the various Asia–Pacific cooperation bodies.

34Thus it was that in the waning days of the Mulroney era had left the foreign ministry portfolio, the larger picture of Canada’s interests in China once again came to the fore. The list of ministers waiting to visit China suddenly became overcrowded and more than our mission could handle. The Canadian Embassy in Beijing in 1988 had boasted a total of eleven commercial officers, the largest such complement of the entire Foreign Service. After June 1989, this number was reduced to six, not to grow again, except briefly before the Team Canada exercise in November 1994. Ad hoc infusions of assistance permitted us to cope. The air was not cleared, however, until the election of a new government in Ottawa and the statement by Prime Minister Jean Chrétien, on March 19, 1994, that no one should expect him to tell the Chinese government what to do when he could not even make any of the provincial governments toe the line. André Ouellet, the new Liberal foreign minister, thus had a ready-made platform for explaining the new government’s revised approach on human rights: individual cases and particular problems would continue to be dealt with directly, but in private. In a wider context, however, human rights objectives were enshrined in the government’s statement entitled Foreign Policy on China: A Four-Pillar Partnership. They would be advanced through cooperative constructive projects seeking to develop good government and the rule of law.

35Who could have predicted that, a mere five years after the tragedy of Tiananmen, the Prime Minister of Canada, accompanied by nine provincial premiers, two territorial leaders, and close to 500 business people, would fill the Great Hall of the People, along with some 1,200 Chinese guests, including many provincial leaders, cadres and most of the Who’s Who of the new Chinese business class? From then on, with Ottawa determined to forge an ever friendlier and more mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing, relations went from strength to strength. In 1997, Chinese and Canadian leaders agreed to build a “21st-century framework for partnership.” By 2003 they had put in place a whole panoply of agreements to enhance political, economic and cultural collaboration in areas as diverse as animal and plant inspection and quarantine, shipping, air transport, potash, petroleum and nuclear energy development, and collaboration between judicial systems. China announced that it would establish a research facility at the vice-ministerial level on Sino-Canadian relations and coordinate positions on major international issues, as well as in the areas of energy, environmental protection and telecommunications.

36In 2005, when Prime Minister Paul Martin Jr. made his first official visit to China, the two countries had already had some differences of view regarding Chinese mineral and petroleum acquisitions in Canada. Nonetheless, they signed a joint statement on energy cooperation, promising to work closely on oil sands, energy efficiency, the environment and related matters. When President Hu Jintao visited Canada later that year he talked of “upgrading the China–Canada comprehensive partnership.” These were not just well-chosen words: they reflected actions that were already under way, as well as future intentions. Both governments had realized that if the world’s environmental problems were to be taken seriously, they needed close cooperation on protecting the planet and developing greener technology. The advances being made in China today in new, environmentally friendly methods and machinery demonstrate that those policies were on the right track.

37The long honeymoon was to sour thereafter, as several issues seemed to spell more trouble for the future of the relationship, including Canada’s apparent inability to extradite Lai Changxing, whom China regards as its most wanted criminal; China’s detention of the Uighur Canadian Huseyin Celil without recognizing his Canadian citizenship and associated consular rights; Ottawa’s intervention in Chinese attempts to buy major interests in Canadian mining and oil companies; Beijing’s refusal to grant official tourist destination status to Canada; and Ottawa’s granting of honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama. Of course, as a friend of mine used to say, the past is behind us, the present is uncertain and the future is always full of hope, but the recent past, despite current deliberate attempts to patch things up, has opened several areas whence misunderstanding, mistrust, and recrimination can reappear in old or new guises.


38I trust that this narrative of Canada’s evolving approach to foreign policy conundrums will have demonstrated that an absence of overriding strategic objectives was generally the rule. While the search for trade and investment opportunities was often a dominant motive, for a long time relations were mostly of an exploratory or hopeful nature and, when they were successful, it was more a result of luck rather than of precise planning. On the other hand, economic opportunities were frequently missed simply because of conflicting short-term political aims, as when racism on Canada’s west coast coincided with inadequate labour supply. Indeed, one could point to similar conflicts today between political short-sightedness and longer-term fruitful relations with China.

39None of the above is meant to underestimate Canadian foreign engagements. I am quite certain that a similar stock-taking of any other world power, major or secondary, would not be able to boast better batting averages. Such is the foreign affairs beast. What I do mean to underline, however, is that circumstances, the irrationality of some players, unpredictable events and sheer chance have fashioned our so-called policies more often than not. What ought to be obvious to any practitioner of the art is that the numerous foreign policy papers, whether they speak of “pillars” or “patterns,” have hardly ever had any influence on what went on in practice, nor did they guide any policy-maker more than for a few hours after their publication. To point to Canada’s obvious desire, from the early 20th century onward, to avoid having to chose between the United Kingdom and the United States, or to its later striving to become less dependent on either of them for trade, is no more enlightening than stating that a rat caught in a cage has as its first objective to get out and, second, to feed itself. If we must label the various stages of our relations with China, I would prefer to divide them into two major categories: those where there was a clearly evident policy line, applied with some consistency, and those where confusion and haphazardness were dominant. A superficial examination of Canada’s relations with China over the past forty years would tend to place most of them in the second category. Since the “mature” relationship dates only from 1989, with the latter segment representing few mature features, one would have to conclude that the major part of this period should be classified as unclear. Coincidence, after all, is the vernacular of history.



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Adjunct Professor at the University of Montreal’s Centre of East Asian Studies. A graduate of Concordia University (philosophy & sociology), University College London (diploma in international law), and École d’Administration, Paris. He joined DEA in 1961. Professor Bild has served in various posts at Headquarters, including Director of personnel and Administration, international political and security affairs. He has served abroad with the Canadian delegation to the International Control Commissions in Laos and at Embassies in Tokyo, Paris (3 times), Bangkok and Beijing. The latter two as Ambassador

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