When the British government handed over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China, I was a staffer for a member of the Ontario Legislature. In the local constituency office, we had a television in the reception area that was normally tuned to the Ontario Legislative Assembly channel. In advance of the Canada Day weekend, it was quiet, so we opted to tune to one of the news channels to watch the formal ceremony.
Of course, there was no shortage of trepidation at the prospect of a Communist regime assuming control of this dynamic colony / city state. My university graduation occurred on the same day as the crackdown on Tienanmen Square protestors gave us the iconic image of a lone soul standing in front of a tank. I also knew Chinese citizens fearful of what would happen if and when they returned home.
But between 1989 and 1997, we saw change in the People’s Republic of China. We saw an opening of its economy to investment from abroad. It was still a dictatorship, but it appeared to be moving in the right direction. We were also told by experts that the Communists rule was a transitory phase, and that once the nation had developed sufficiently in terms of its economy and infrastructure, and that it would gradually evolve into what we would recognize as a democracy.
We knew that the ‘one country, two systems’ rule would expire in 2047, but we were not bothered. After all, did we not win the great ideological battle against Communism? Didn’t the Berlin Wall collapse without firing a shot? Didn’t the peoples of eastern Europe, inspired by the moral example we represented, throw off their shackles in order to emulate our freedom? Did we not bring about the ‘end of history’? How many times did we hear people say not to worry about 2047 because, by that time ‘China will have become so much like Hong Kong, it will all be a formality.’
Two decades on, and I am not sure anyone would be willing to stand by that prediction.
Rather than reducing the repression of its citizens, China has increased its surveillance and arbitrary use of force. Economic growth has not transformed China into a democracy, but merely better financed and facilitated its repression. This is bad enough in and of itself, but the strident and chauvinistic attitude is now being projected beyond its borders.
In the Canadian context, we have seen instances where the Canadian press corps assigned to cover Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Finance Minister Bill Morneau on visits to Beijing were banned from doing their jobs by Chinese security personnel. To be clear, Canadian reporters were banned from asking Canadian politicians questions for their Canadian audiences. Further to that, we have seen in the past couple of days the Chinese government detain Michael Kovrig – a former Canadian diplomat working for an NGO. This follows within days of the arrest of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver, pending an extradition to the United States to face charges stemming from alleged circumvention of the trade embargo on Iran.
For those who are looking for some moral equivalency in these events, and that we Canadians somehow brought this on ourselves, they may do us the courtesy of explaining the exact nature of Mr. Kovrig’s crimes to the breadth and extent that Ms. Meng’s alleged misdeeds have already been covered in the media – and do so without trotting out the old bromide about ‘espionage’, which has been so overused it has become the epitome of a cliché.
Globalization has been the biggest victim of this attitude and behaviour.
In the last fortnight alone, we have seen the continuation of the political soap opera that is Washington, the 3 ring circus that is the Brexit negotiations, the riots and anarchy that line the great thoroughfares of the City of Lights, the continued machinations of Putin’s Russia, the strident and arrogant posturing of Beijing, and the Keystone Kops-like manoeuvering of elites that only seem as elegant as Torvill and Dean when compared to the machinations in Westminster.
Nature abhors a vacuum, although the western liberal establishment has done a rather effective job at avoiding being hoovered up to this point. At some point, however, even the best and the brightest cannot help but succumb to these elemental forces. Given that those in charge are neither of these things, their day of reckoning is that much closer.
If it were just the fate of a handful of cognoscenti, that would be one thing, but their incompetence and lack of vision becomes our burden to shoulder. None of these people ever lost their gigs as news channel pundits or ‘special advisors,’ although the advice they have given has caused tangible loss for countless working families in Europe and North America.
Two years ago, more than half of those Britons who voted chose to leave. Of the minority who voted Remain, a good portion did so out of fear, or a mistaken belief that the UK could negotiate a status that allowed it to be an independent actor within a future European federal state. Today, the ‘Brexit’ proposal on offer looks eerily like the latter group’s forlorn hope – the political and economic equivalent of an open marriage. Neither heaven nor hell, a geopolitical purgatory that ends – if the Withdrawal Agreement is to be taken literally – sometime in “20XX.”
Not long ago, a number of people – including myself and our erstwhile Daily Globe publisher – presented an open letter, which appeared in both the Daily Telegraph and National Review in the United States. It was – and is – a sincere effort to cut through the malaise and the fog, to envision a future that goes beyond Brexit, or even a CANZUK / Commonwealth trade network. In five precise points, we make a case for what amounts to the foundation of a new globalisation. In the recent re-issue of my book, I refer to it as ‘Bretton Woods 2.0’.
Because our problems are bigger than the posturing of a US President or the fumbling of a British Prime Minister, and they will not diminish without a real strategy to carry us forward.
If we do nothing, and continue on the current path, we will live in a world where China – and its geopolitical inclinations are ascendant, and where leadership of the ‘western liberal’ world lies with two powers, the United States and the European Union, who are pre-occupied with their own internal issues of economics and political disruption.
It is a world of our making. The cognoscenti offered a totalitarian regime unfettered access to the world’s most prosperous markets without hard and fast guarantees of reciprocity and fairness. They were seized by the allure of a billion person consumer base that, even after two decades, remains an unrequited tease. In exchange for this ‘mirage market’, we allowed for the systemic de-industrialization of our economies, and the displacement of millions of workers in our own communities. When they complained, we ignored them, then demonized them. They got desperate and angry, and now the United States has a President Trump and cars burn on the Champs Elysees.
It does no material good to complain about the state of affairs, yet remain entrenched in the status quo. A change is needed, and those with the authority to enact change must swallow their pride, admit their gross errors, and fix their mistakes.
A path exists.
First, Brexit must be allowed to happen. It is the will of the British people, and it is only through its implementation that the UK can fully engage in a new arrangement.
Second, two CANZUK treaties – one addressing free trade, and the other freedom of movement – should be negotiated. This can happen in two stages: a transitional CANUK trade treaty between Canada and the UK, followed by 4 way negotiations that would see CANUK harmonized with the Australia-New Zealand Closer Economic Relations Treaty (ANZCERTA) and the inclusion of Canada and Britain in the Trans-Tasman Agreement.
Third, the gradual building out of the CANZUK Free Trade Agreement to include Commonwealth member states that meet the specified conditions for membership – namely reciprocity in trade and upholding of human rights and civil society. In the case of lesser developed countries unable to meet these targets, allow the possibility to admit regions of countries that are designated as Special Economic Zones (SEZ) that can meet those preconditions within their set boundaries, creating a pathway to membership.
Fourth, create a geostrategic alliance of like-minded powers – including a networked Commonwealth of over 1 billion people, the United States, a reconstituted European Union, Japan, South Korea, among others – as a countervailing force against the rise of totalitarianism and the decline of the liberal international order.
It would not be the death of globalisation, but its re-invigoration. A globalisation that meets the challenge of illiberalism head on, and does so while addressing the legitimate concerns of those for whom globalisation has neglected or forgot – both in the industrialized and developing worlds.
It’s bold, provocative and easily derided, and yet – ask yourself this question – have you heard anyone lately come up with something better?