One Empty Chair and Many Empty Words

THERE ARE A few rules to which I’ve held myself as a professional speech writer. Do your homework, know and respect your audience and the protocols governing the occasion, and always prefer the plain truth that will not please your audience over nice-sounding and gratifying words that aren’t so. Or, as I’ve had occasion to summarize: it’s better to deliver bad news that you can guarantee than it is good news that you are confident you can’t.

This week in the southern port city Guangzhou, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered a decent speech which I note happens to reflect most of these principles. It was widely reported in Canadian media that Harper stood up for Canada’s values, a typical headline, in this case from the Edmonton Journal, being: ‘Harper to China: We want trade, but human rights must come first.’ By all means read the article, but don’t expect to find any evidence supporting this assertion. The editor appears not to have read the piece himself; nor does the author, Jason Fekete, deliver the necessary quotations. But there was in the February 10 speech an overlooked passage of relevance:

in relations between Canada and China, you should expect us to continue to raise issues of fundamental freedoms and human rights and to be a vocal advocate for these, just as we will be an effective partner in our growing and mutually beneficial economic relationship.

Needless to say, my principles and ground-rules as a speech writer have no application and no relevance to the Prime Minister and his inner circle. My views, of this or any other matter, are immaterial. Nonetheless it is the case that the passage cited above was intended for domestic consumption, and that furthermore it represents a pleasant sounding and reassuring string of words which taken together are null and void.

The bad news that Harper can guarantee is right there in front of you: ‘We will be an effective partner in our growing and mutually beneficial economic relationship.’ Why is this bad news? Well, the speech takes for granted that domestic opposition to present business developments amounts to nothing more than ‘foreign money and influence that seek to obstruct development in Canada.’ A nice bit of slanderous paranoia, that, and worthy of comparison to the Chinese government’s internal propaganda against its own critics. Read the speech carefully and ponder this theme of Dissidents be Damned, the implications of which could not have been lost on its immediate hearers. In the evident realpolitik world, ‘to raise issues of fundamental freedoms and human rights and to be a vocal advocate for these’ means to toss in a few nice-sounding phrases for the folks back home, winking and nudging as you do. If you think I’m off the mark in this assessment, I invite you to provide me the evidence.

Meanwhile, anyone paying attention has noted the deterioration of human rights in China over the recent years. As I type these words, reports arrive concerning the detention once again of Zhu Yufu, who has spent most of the past thirteen years in prison. His latest crime was the writing of a poem:

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
The Square belongs to everyone.
With your own two feet
It’s time to head to the Square and make your choice.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
A song belongs to everyone.
From your own throat
It’s time to voice the song in your heart.

It’s time, people of China! It’s time.
China belongs to everyone.
Of your own will
It’s time to choose what China shall be.

Mr. Zhu now is likely to spend another seven years in prison. Year after year the stuffed suits arrive to the Middle Kingdom, always scrupulous as the ink dries on the contracts and MOUs to ‘raise the issue.’ As long ago as the Nixon administration, we were to believe that engagement was far better than the alternatives, and that much more could be accomplished in the promotion of human rights and freedom by drawing China into trade and commerce. Again, I invite the submission of the evidence.

The business of drawing China in has a long and mostly discouraging history. As far back as the British ambassador George Macartney, the diplomatic challenge was to open up the Chinese market without submitting wholly to the kowtow, the plain meaning of which was abject submission of the English monarch to the Qianlong emperor. Over the centuries separating George III and Richard Nixon, the balance of power between West and East shifted, a fact which in the mid-1800s the Chinese court absorbed to its great dismay. And yet a form of kowtowing has been revived in modern times, and at the diplomatic forefront is Nixon himself. This modern form of submission very carefully avoids pissing off the Mandarins (or, in the present case of Guangzhou, the Cantonese) lest access be denied to the massive capital and low-wage labour pools of an economic system which combines the worst elements of crony capitalism and Maoist autocracy.

As anyone in retrospect may now observe, the Chinese state partnered with American capitalism years ago in a to-the-bottom-wage campaign which brought spectacular benefits to a few winners and misery to a great many global losers. The winners rather like the prevailing system and won’t tolerate the losers (that’s you and me, mate) spoiling things with subversive notions like democracy, unionism, environmentalism, freedom, and human rights. As already mentioned, China has a great pool not only of endless cheap labour but of capital, and the business community here in Canada is wet on the chin to have some, and therefore will. Harper’s speech makes that much clear.

So it doesn’t much matter that the war of attrition against Tibet proceeds unimpeded. It doesn’t much matter that China is putting its money behind Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, greatly advancing the likelihood of a regional war. It doesn’t matter that the number of poets, essayists, novelists, journalists, lawyers, and activists in China’s prisons grows each day. It doesn’t matter that for a quarter of a century the net effect of China in the world has been to drive down the global standard of wages, workers’ rights, environmental health, and political freedoms. It doesn’t matter that the Chinese Communist regime has become so hysterical that, for example, the phrase ’empty chair’ was censored from Internet searches on December 10, 2010, the day a Nobel Peace Price rested on the empty chair reserved for the imprisoned dissident Liu Xiaobo. Or, at the very least, it doesn’t matter enough to alter one whit the course of business as usual.

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