CANADIAN Prime Minister Jean Chretien is pushing to expand trade with China despite concerns by human-rights groups, opposition politicians, and the United States that China's record on rights violations is growing worse.
Tomorrow, Canadian Trade Minister Roy MacLaren will leave with Canadian business leaders for a tour of China, South Korea, and Japan. Governor-General Ramon Hnatyshyn, the head of state, will make a similar swing through Asia in May.
Mr. Chretien himself will visit Beijing in November, the first visit by a Canadian prime minister since hundreds of unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators were killed in Tiananmen Square by troops in 1989.
``How do you balance human rights with the need to trade?'' Chretien asked last week in a speech at a foreign policy review conference. With pragmatism, government officials say. If Canada is to pursue a human-rights agenda with China, it must do much more, not less, business with China - its sixth-largest trading partner -
and talk privately about human rights issues.
Chretien has long shown an interest in shifting the focus of Canadian trade from Europe to Asia. A key motivation, analysts say, is his desire to hook Canada's still-sluggish economy to Asia's emerging economic powerhouse.
Last year, Canada exported $169.5 billion (Canadian; US$124 billion) in goods and services. Fully $113.6 billion (67 percent) went to the US, according to Statistics Canada, a government agency. But Japan, South Korea, China, and Taiwan absorbed 35 percent of all of the rest of Canada's exports.
Over the next decade, Asia is expected to spend US$1 trillion on electric plants, phone systems, roads, and airports. Exports are the brightest spot in the Canadian economy - and perhaps Chretien's best hope to create jobs to bring down Canada's 11 percent unemployment rate, analysts say. Northern Telecom, for instance, has been selling phone systems, and Hydro-Quebec is looking to help build power facilities in China.
Foreign Affairs Minister Andre Ouellet told the Globe and Mail this week that the Chretien government wants to better relations with China in order to ``take advantage of the opportunities there.'' The minister also spoke of not wanting to get ``bogged down by Tiananmen Square.''
THERE are indications of a continuing problem, however. A human rights report released last month by Human Rights Watch/Asia detailed hundreds of recent arrests of labor and other activists. Reports continue about China's use of prison labor to manufacture products for export.
US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's recent trip to Beijing included public criticisms of China's human rights record, resulting in a hostile reception. Now the US is weighing whether or not to revoke the most-favored-nation trade status it has granted China.
``I would have liked to see our prime minister supporting the initiatives taken by the US on the human rights issue,'' says Ed Broadbent, former leader of the New Democratic Party and now president of the International Centre for Human Rights and Domestic Development.
Under Chretien, Canada wants to hew to a foreign policy course distinct from the US. But in pursuing close relations with China, some say it is undermining its credibility as a champion of human rights.
Canada led other nations in calling for a boycott of South Africa, for instance. It has pushed for stronger action to return Haiti's democratically elected leader to power. And last week, a member of the Chretien administration spoke about the need for political reform in Mexico. Yet China is simply a different story, Chretien says.
``If I were to say to China, `We are not dealing with you any more,' they ... would not feel threatened by Canada,'' Chretien said last week. ``I'm the prime minister of a country of 28 million people. He [Chinese President Jiang Zemin] is the president of a country with 1.2 billion.... Am I supposed to tell the president of China what to do?''
Still, the notion that Canada lacks clout and must approach China in a unique way does not wash with Official Opposition Leader Lucien Bouchard, who accuses Chretien of hypocrisy.
``The government is trying to impose an almost total embargo against Haiti,'' Mr. Bouchard says. Meanwhile ``the prime minister is planning to make a friendly visit to China, during which he will keep his unhappiness with its policies to himself.''