Doing Business with China without Selling Our Soul

Standing in front of a Beijing Starbucks on a polluted October day I wondered what would approval of the Nexen–CNOOC deal mean for Canada and our relationship with China, not to overlook the Foreign Investment Protection Act and growing Chinese investment. We recently received an indication via the government’s new rules on foreign acquisitions. Or did we?

I’ve worked on environment and development issues for over 30 years, in China since 2005. I’m heartened that Canadians are paying increased attention to our relationship with China, but are we sufficiently concerned about our role in the environmental, health and social problems plaguing China and other countries with which we do business?

Since the early 1970s when we renewed diplomatic relations with China, our relationship has largely driven by economic leaders seeking commercial benefits and politicians anxious to facilitate that. National strategies to guide the relationship have been lacking, as well as a clear set of principles.

Some try to allay the fears of Canadians about social injustice and environmental damage arguing that the enormous economic change in China from a state to market-driven economy has led to significant improvement. Such an assertion is not supported by evidence and a policy of opportunity rather than relationship building is unlikely to achieve long-term success.

In our paper “Strengthening Canada’s Foreign Policy: Lessons from Our China Experience” we examine the shortcomings of a foreign policy overwhelmingly based on short-term trade and economic ambitions and put forward ideas for a comprehensive, coordinated multi-sector Canada-China strategy that better meets Canada’s interests and our international responsibilities.

China is a complex environment, whether conducting business, pursuing political co-operation or recruiting wealthy tourists, students and immigrants. Our businesses governments, universities (and others) typically pursue their own interests with little regard to how they may or may not represent Canada’s best interests let alone how co-operation might achieve more lasting outcomes. It’s no great surprise then that many have noted, with some frustration, Canada’s lack of “brand recognition.”

The federal government is the only existing structure capable of pulling together the various actors and aspects of our China relationship into a coordinated effort. We recognize the inherent jurisdictional and operational challenges but these must be overcome to better serve Canada’s long-term interests.

It is a very large objective to create a non-partisan forum to bring together the diverse political and economic forces that contend in pursuing a Canadian strategy on China. Most governments and businesses are content with a loose policy environment in which they can adapt and adjust to circumstances as they please.

This may serve the interests of government and business but does it best serve Canada and the Canadian people? To answer that question we encourage our business and political leaders to work with civil society organizations to develop, with active public participation, a strategic policy. Canadians have the right to be represented abroad in ways that imbue pride.

Canada is a country with many natural and human assets. This author believes that Canadians are grateful for our blessings and will support a China policy, indeed a foreign policy that is socially just, environmentally responsible and economically sound.

If our national leadership is unwilling or unable to bring us together in the spirit of cooperation to craft such a strategy then Canadian civil society should step into the void and bring together interested parties to develop constructive proposals. What role do we want to play in the world? It’s time for Canadians to have that discussion and decide, not by inattentive or uninformed acquiescence but, through an honest, respectful process of nation building.

At the same time we need to decide who we welcome to Canada, including investors. Should Canada allow foreign purchase of our strategic assets?

In my opinion it’s the wrong question. It’s not about who develops our resources but how quickly they are developed, for whose benefit and how development impacts the environment and the lives of Canadians, particularly those whose rights may be immediately impacted.

I object to resources being developed too quickly because decisions are driven by investment goals rather than the best interests of Canadians. These assets will appreciate over time and they belong to Canadians not a small group of investors, foreign or Canadian.

Canada doesn’t need to develop the oil sands or any other natural resource in one generation nor is it fair or responsible to do so. Just as our foreign policy must be socially just, environmentally responsible and economically sound so must be our domestic practices.

There are alternatives. We can achieve economic success, without abandoning our social and environmental principles and responsibilities, only if Canadians are willing to work together to make that aspiration a reality.

Michael Bloomfield
Founder and Executive Director
Harmony Foundation of Canada

December, 2012