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Pique'n'yer interest

Welcoming China, with caution

Last year I received an e-mail from a high school friend who teaches English in foreign countries, and spent a year working in China. “I’m in Shenyang,” she wrote. “You’ve never heard of it, but it has around 20 million people.”

There are reportedly 95 cities in China with a population of more than one million, as well as some of the most populated cities in the world in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. China is a giant, no question, and lately it has become a giant with money to spend.

But while China is a capitalist’s paradise of polluting factories and cheap labour, it’s also a communist country that’s leaning totalitarian, where freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and travel are curtailed by the state. Despite having the yuan for it, China’s new wealthy class can’t travel just anywhere on holiday — which is why Canada is working to earn Approved Destination Status from the Chinese government.

Although the Chinese are not big skiers and mountain bikers, and tend to prefer destinations with gambling, shopping and nightlife, some will most certainly visit Whistler, if only for the views. If the dollars they spend here help us to earn back a few of the dollars we send to China for all the goods we buy, so much the better.

But it still makes me uneasy. It wasn’t that long ago that western nations imposed sanctions against China because of the totalitarian nature of its government. What’s really changed since then?

China still occupies Tibet, against the wishes of native Tibetans, and regularly threatens Taiwan, which doesn’t want to be part of a new Chinese empire. Maybe China does have some historical claims to those territories, but things change — the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is consigned to the dustbins of history. People have a right to freedom and self-determination.

Watching a larger tragedy unfold in Burma, where perhaps thousands of Buddhist monks have been detained and slaughtered for their recent pro-democracy protests, we’re also reminded that China is Burma’s closest ally. While other countries have imposed sanctions on Burma’s military junta, China has continued to trade and profit from a mutual relationship.

(So have European and American oil companies through a loophole in the sanctions, but that’s another story.)

For their part, China has called for calm and tolerance from Burmese officials, but stopped short of threatening economic sanctions or other forms of retribution. That’s probably because China doesn’t exactly have a high horse to sit on after viciously clamping down on Buddhist monks in Tibet, and violently breaking up its own pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Some could argue that China has come a long way in the last decade and a half, but in the absence of another pro-democracy rally to test the Chinese government I have my doubts. That protest is unlikely to happen with people still rotting in prison after the last one.

It’s not just Burma that has me worried. In Darfur — where the Sundanese government has backed the Janjaweed militias that have reportedly killed or starved more than 200,000 people in the worst genocide since Rwanda — China has been less than helpful. They blocked and vetoed resolutions by the UN security council that might have resulted in a UN peacekeeping presence in that country and sanctions against the government in time to stop the worst massacres. Why? Many suspect it’s because energy-hungry China has agreements in place with the Sudanese government to purchase oil and develop oil ventures, and sell Chinese-made weapons.

China only recently changed its mind and supported the creation of an African Union and United Nations force of up to 26,000 troops to maintain the peace in Darfur. They deny that their sudden change of heart had anything to do with human rights activists threatening to protest at the 2008 Olympics.

Burma. Darfur. Tibet. Taiwan. Tiananmen. This is not a track record a country should be proud of.

Add in all the recent recalls of Chinese products that were contaminated with toxic toxic compounds, and my uneasiness with China only gets worse.

In the past I didn’t pay much attention to where the things I bought were manufactured, but trusted our government to ensure that everything was kosher. However, since our government is clearly more answerable to big business and corporate lobbyists than the general public, I’ve started to look for “Made In” labels when making purchasing decisions. I buy Made In Canada wherever possible, and follow my conscience when making other purchases. Lately that means avoiding Made In China labels, which is a lot more difficult than it sounds — China makes everything for everybody, at a price nobody else can match.

Compounding the difficulty is the uncomfortable fact that a lot of what we buy is labeled misleadingly. For example, for a product to display a “Product of Canada” label only 51 per cent of production costs have to be Canadian. For example, Chinese apple juice from concentrate in a Canadian-made container can be called a Product of Canada. The brand Europe’s Best is made in Canada using fruit and vegetables from Canada, Peru, Guatemala, and — you guessed it — China.

I’m not opposed to people visiting Canada from China. I’m just not ready to kiss China’s ass to make that possible.