Brian Mulroney wants Justin Trudeau to send Jean Chrétien to China to ask nicely for the release of Canadians being held on trumped-up espionage charges, and for others that it has put on death row. The arbitrary arrests and sentences are in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou on an extradition request from the United States.
The suggestion is that Chrétien, accompanied by his son-in-law André Desmarais, CEO of Power Corp., can use their high-powered Chinese contacts to spring the Canadians, as a sort of favour from China’s tyrants to their longtime Canadian friends.
Aside from it being almost the definition of superfluous for anyone to send Chrétien, who made six trips to China as prime minister and has continued visiting during his post-premiership, it is a bit peculiar that Mulroney would publicly advise treating China as one does North Korea or Saddam’s Iraq.
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Bill Clinton headed to North Korea in 2009 to secure the release of imprisoned journalists. It’s the kind of thing one does when dealing with a totalitarian regime in which there is no rule of law, but just the decrees of the powerful. Ritual obeisance is made, and the tyrant shows how magnanimous he is by granting a pardon.
In 1990, when Saddam Hussein was holding 15 Americans hostage as human shields after his invasion of Kuwait, Muhammad Ali dispatched himself to Baghdad. Saddam kept the champ cooling his heels before benevolently granting him an audience. Saddam got what he wanted — the greatest of all time coming cap in hand, contrary to the wishes of the American administration — and sent the Americans home with Ali.
So it can work with certain regimes. And it is more than of passing interest that Mulroney thinks the Chinese are not a respectable regime capable of impartial justice, but need the Saddam treatment, and that a little bowing and scraping will get the job done.
Bowing before Beijing is something Mulroney himself is rather good at — although, as his proposal acknowledges, Chrétien is the master.
During the Oliphant inquiry into his business practices, Mulroney himself reported that he was in China within months of his retirement as prime minister, along with Paul Desmarais Sr., André Desmarais and Maurice Strong, chairman of Ontario Hydro and an old Power Corp. hand.
Mulroney claimed that he lobbied the Chinese to buy military equipment from the German manufacturer Thyssen. At the time, Canada still had arms-trading sanctions against China, imposed by Mulroney himself after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But no need to let that get in the way of doing a little business.
About a year later, in November 1994, Chrétien went to China with his first “Team Canada” trade mission to announce, in effect, that if the Chinese would buy enough of our goods, the unpleasantness of Tiananmen would be forgotten. And so it was. The Chinese were mightily pleased and what followed was the so-called “golden decade” in Sino-Canadian relations.
Mulroney and Chrétien and any number of former worthies continue to travel back and forth to China, a veritable bipartisan parade that is always at the ready to explain how Chinese sensitivities must be taken into account when speaking, if absolutely necessary, about one of the world’s great human rights abusers. The usual line is that everything goes much better if one is discreet about the nastier elements of the Chinese communist party’s stranglehold on civic life.
Mulroney, Chrétien and Desmarais have delivered that line a thousand times. But the government can hardly adopt that line when the Chinese are threatening to execute two of our citizens. The government has condemned in no uncertain terms the arbitrary treatment of the Canadians, and protested the various trade penalties that the Chinese have taken against Canadian agricultural exports.
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What, then, does Mulroney imagine Chrétien and Desmarais can say to the Chinese? Would they suggest that the Canadian government doesn’t really mean what it says? Or apologize quietly for arresting Meng? Or would they promise some other secret concessions for the release of the Canadians?
The Chrétien-Mulroney-Desmarais China operation is institutionalized by the Canada China Business Council, founded by the late Paul Desmarais Sr. The current chair of the board of directors is Olivier Desmarais. They will hold their annual “Canada Day in Beijing Gala” next week, the principal sponsors being the federal tourism crown corporation, Destination Canada and — wait for it — Power Corp, along with the Royal Bank of Canada, Bank of Montreal and Manulife. Toasts will be given, lobster will be served, and the message will be received in Beijing that Canada is desperate to get back to business as usual by pretending that it is business as usual.
Is that the message the Canadian government wants to send? Doubtful, but if so, it is not necessary to send Chrétien and Desmarais. That message has been delivered by Power Corp. in China for generations.