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Chris Pereira: Worsening geopolitical crisis with China, or signs of stability?

Depends on who you ask, and what language you speak. Canada can help.
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"Media headlines and political statements have reached a frenzied level of supposed “crisis” on all fronts when it comes to China"

Last weekend President Xi Jinping was named to another term as head of the ruling Communist Party, breaking with tradition and promoting allies who, most media say, will support his vision of tighter control over the direction of China and the struggling economy. 

Quite clearly, Xi is China’s most powerful leader in decades.

Despite official Chinese claims about a focus on so-called Common Prosperity, democracy and openness, many will point out that China is lurching in a more authoritarian direction at home and toward more aggressive policies abroad. Amid polarizing U.S. politics, incoherent and frankly embarrassing Canadian foreign policy toward both the United States and China, things seem pretty bleak.

And yet even this week, there are hints of a relaxing of strict covid policies in China. China’s economy continues to grow and raise countless millions out of poverty every year, with China contributing a whopping 86% of GDP to the Asia Pacific region – not to mention the fact China achieved the UN Sustainable Development Goal of eradicating absolute poverty a full decade ahead of schedule. Adding to this, during a recent speech in New York at the Asia Society, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi struck a decidedly conciliatory tone. Anyone actually listening and understanding the Chinese version of his remarks could hear his tone: firm and yet open to discussion – and most importantly: respectful. In other words: it’s complicated, and nuance matters.  

Yes, Canadian politicians and media, I am talking to you: a little nuance and subtlety can go a long way. Media headlines and political statements have reached a frenzied level of supposed “crisis” on all fronts when it comes to China. According to Canadian and American media, coffee machines are now stealing our personal information on behalf of the Communist Party of China to tell Xi Jinping how we take our morning brew, and tracking our every move on the streets of North America. These headlines make me wonder how much a risqué headline is worth verses actually informing the public of what China is really willing and capable of doing. How much is our own media selling out for a quick buck, versus actually telling a compelling but true story? If we do head into World War III, surely the media’s role in greasing the wheels of our tanks will be no small role played.

As geopolitical tensions between China and the U.S. have ramped up in the past few years, it is true that there are tensions, disagreements and hot emotions on both sides. Technology, and in particular sensitive areas like chips, have been dragged into the battle. The U.S. has formally abandoned its long-standing tradition of open and free competition, a practice that made the stars and stripes truly great in the first place, and has instead shifted to, woefully ironically, state-controlled and directed access to markets relating to advanced technology and chips. On the other side, even Tesla CEO Elon Musk has stepped into the fray by recommending that Taiwan become “a special administrative zone” of China with an arrangement that could potentially be more “lenient” than Hong Kong. Patriotic Chinese readers of this paragraph will be unhappy with the first half, and patriotic Canadian readers will be outraged at the second half. Emotions run high on both sides of this discussion. But that’s the point.

Selling fear is good for business, good for political careers and very bad for our future prosperity. Surely more people (including myself) will click on a headline warning of World War III than a news report remarking that China has said it is committed to peaceful resolution of all conflicts around the world. Just like we will never see a headline announcing “No One Died in a Car Crash Today on Granville Street,”, likewise we will never see a headline informing us that China is opening its arms to frank discussion and open dialogue – it’s just not sexy enough. Budget-starved media outlets need the clicks – and to hell with the consequences for our children’s futures. The business incentives for media, including social media, clearly require a major reassessment if we’re going to maintain a civil discourse both at home and abroad.

The U.S. and China represent the most significant – and potentially most perilous – bilateral relationship in human history.  Given that reality, Canada has a role to play in this dance between giants. Our role is to build bridges with other cultures and peoples. Virtue signalling and empty name-calling will get us nowhere with China.

I believe there is no other country in the world better positioned to build bridges with China than Canada. And as China enters its next 5-year period of growth and opening up, we need to push beyond blind emotional reactions and fearmongering to find truly win-win solutions to international problems. Let’s break bread, and perhaps down a bowl of rice, with our friends and neighbors across the Pacific and discuss our disagreements openly and respectfully – it’s the Canadian (and the Chinese) thing to do. Our children will thank us for it.

Chris Pereira (chris@ecoinst.ca) previously worked for Huawei Technologies in Shenzhen, and most recently served as senior director of public affairs at Huawei Canada. Fluent in Mandarin, he serves as president of North American Ecosystem Institute. He is based in Richmond, B.C., and has over 15 years of experience in China.
 

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