Friday 3 June 2016

On Power, and Chinese Diplomacy

I prefer information that professional journalists have worked hard to deliver. I read newspapers. I listen to the radio, and I watch at least two different television networks newscasts every night.

That's why I saw and heard various versions of China's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Wang Yi, verbally ripping skin off Amanda Connolly, a journalist for iPolitics, at a press conference in Ottawa.

Wang Yi was there for talks with the Prime Minister and with Global Affairs Minister Stephane Dion about a free trade deal between Canada and China.You might well ask why Canada would pursue such an agreement when energy prices are at rock bottom, and so many Canadian manufacturing jobs have been taken by China where wages are much lower and regulations much easier to ignore. Do we really yearn for more of same? One answer, the public answer, is that both Europe and US are entering protectionist phases in their politics, and Canada, a trading nation, must find all alternative markets. A more powerful reason may be that Power Corporation, the Quebec based financial services company with global reach (yet intimate relationships with leaders of Canada's political class), has large investments in China and owes favors.

Ms. Connolly, the pool reporter chosen to put the one question she and her colleagues were permitted, dared to ask the Minister about human rights abuses in China, including the fate of a Canadian missionary, Kevin Garratt, indicted there as a Canadian spy and currently languishing in a gulag. Garratt, who ran a Christian mission/restaurant on the China side of the border with North Korea, was arrested along with his wife after the government of Canada complained publicly about China's hackers rummaging through the National Research Council's supposedly protected files. After months of interrogation, Garratt's wife was let go. Not Garratt.

Minister Wang's response was a naked display of power, apparently the new normal in China's diplomacy. Instead of letting Minister Dion answer the journalist's question, the Foreign Minister intervened and hammered out that China is the second largest economy in the world, has lifted six hundred million people from poverty in the last few decades, has a constitution that protects human rights, could not have done all this without due regard to human rights and, therefore, the journalist's question was a display of ignorance and arrogance and "totally unacceptable." Was it the part of the question that touched on those publishers kidnapped off the streets in Hong Kong so they couldn't publish on Wang's boss, Xi's, dalliances that got his goat? I don't think anything got his goat. I think it was a set up.

The photo in my morning paper reinforced my reading of the social meaning of the whole business -- Minister Wang was acting as proxy for his country's authority. Alpha males, especially those who acquire power in business or politics, work hard at being sleek. (Well okay, Donald Trump is the exception that proves the rule.) Mr. Wang appears to have spent hours and hours getting fitted for his very expensive suit, shirt, tie, his appearance polished further by a personal hair stylist. Does his State pay for this?  He looks like a man who enjoys wealth and has no fear of anyone asking where it came from. (One wonders: do members of his family own nice homes in Vancouver?)

The contrast between him and Stephane Dion was marked. While not rumpled, Dion was certainly not sleek. Dion sometimes carries a backpack to work, which is what you would expect of an academic with not the slightest interest in wealth and a dubious understanding of how to demonstrate power. At the press conference, Dion stood passively, his hands folded, as Minister Wang swung his arm wide, physically dominating the podium, demonstrating China's dominant status for the world to see.

Even the titles of their two departments are weirdly telling-- they are lies that speak to truths. You would think, given the way China has been hacking everybody's secrets, and building islands in the South China Sea for its military jets to land on, claiming same as China's traditional territory, that China would call its outreach department something with more punch than Foreign Affairs. You'd think Canada, with hardly any military power left to its name, would find a more modest moniker for Stephane Dion than Minister of Global Affairs.

Human political power does require displays of bluster, bullying, and threats in order to be effective, but it is also shaped by the particulars of a nation's political culture, whether power runs from the bottom up, or from the top down, or a mix of both.  Political power in Canada is always contested by competing interests even when a Prime Minister wins a big majority. Whoever is wise enough to make it to the top of the political greasy pole knows that great efforts must be exerted to make common cause with competitors in order to stay aloft. Those on top in Canada are well advised to make big shows of humility, because tomorrow their power might be--will be--gone. China, by contrast, is run by an authoritarian regime whose power has been acquired at the point of a gun. Any power wielded by those down below is only by the grace of those at the very top. When those on the bottom grow restless with their lack of status, humility shown by the leader can be very, very dangerous, an invitation to shake the throne. As it happens, the bottom is restless in China, because its economy has slowed, and there are far too many low status males without partners (like India, the aborted babies of China tend to be female). The men on the bottom are unhappy about future prospects.

For these reasons, the Chinese leadership must constantly appear strong, and there is no safer weakling for China to measure itself against than a foreigner with no significant navy, not much of an air force, and no history of attacking others--except native people-- without cause. Any nation looking for favors from China, such as Canada, even one which might be useful by offering back door entry to the US market, must cuddle close and be willing to bend like a pretzel.

That the Trudeau government has named its outreach department Global Affairs is a flat out admission that Canada's power in the world is at its nadir and common cause with just about everybody is therefore the order of the day. The Trudeau government should be applauded for recognizing this country's peril. I wouldn't be surprised if the very clever Canadian officials who work in the department of Global Affairs goaded Ms. Connolly and her colleagues into asking that question. This gave Wang a moment he clearly had prepared for.

Or should I say hoped for.
It must have played very well on Chinese newscasts.

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