Brian Lee Crowley

Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald & Vancouver Sun: CEOs only have eyes for China

In my latest column for the Ottawa Citizen, Calgary Herald and Vancouver Sun, I caution Canadian CEOs to not only have eyes for China. Full column below:


CEOs only have eyes for China

By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, September 29, 2012

East is east and west is west, wrote Rudyard Kipling, and never the twain shall meet.

Clearly dear old Rudyard was never exposed to the Canadian business class hot on the scent of Chinese profits.

The twain appeared to meet with a vengeance at an Ottawa conference put on several days ago by the Canadian Council of Chief Executives on Canada in the Asian century. Clearly Canada’s CEOs never met a Chinese business opportunity they did not want to embrace. And yet these titans of our business world weren’t listening to what was being said at their own conference.

Speaker after speaker sounded important qualifications and dangers about the opportunities offered by Asia.

One of the most important was the observation that Asia was not a single thing, country, opportunity, or danger. India and Indonesia, Vietnam and even Japan were only some of the Asian economies and societies repeatedly singled out, for instance, for the opportunities they offered.

The CEOs in the room only had eyes for China.

Speakers told them the U.S. business class, five years ago equally bedazzled by China, is increasingly disillusioned. “Nobody makes money in China” is now their mantra, and while you are struggling to establish yourself in their market, your Chinese partners are often helping themselves to your intellectual property and showing you the door when they’re done.

Our business leaders clearly thought that nothing like that would happen to us nice Canadians. One of them assured the audience that if only we came to know the Chinese as he has, we too would learn to trust them.


Are we talking about the same Chinese with thousands of missiles pointed at Taiwan, who turn out large, militantly chauvinistic mobs at the drop of a hat to denounce neighbours whose behaviour the regime disapproves of, and who have been repeatedly exposed as engaged in military and industrial espionage on a large scale, including in Canada?

Is this the same China whose ambassador to Canada threatened us recently that if we didn’t approve of a Chinese state-owned company’s bid for Nexen, a Canadian energy company, that we “wouldn’t be able to do business together”? The same China that ruthlessly and insouciantly throws peasants off land they have been farming for generations with little or no compensation because their presence has become inconvenient for Communist Party apparatchiks?

The same China whose belligerent behaviour in Asia has driven most small and medium-sized Asian countries to beg the United States to increase its military and other commitments in the region to counter-balance this overweening behemoth? The China that executes more people every year than any other country in the world?

I feel more warm and fuzzy already.

Speaking of the United States, our business leaders were also reminded that China and the United States, while clearly sharing many interests, are also locked in a power struggle. This is not the first time, after all, that a dominant world power has faced a resurgent nation bitter at its treatment by a world adjudged hostile and exploitative. China has lots to complain about regarding its treatment by western powers and their allies over the last two centuries. But one of the reasons that such rises frequently end in tears is that the rising power is wont to cast aside the “corrupt” system that “kept us down.”

That system would include, say, the regime of collective security that for decades has guaranteed the peace and freedom of western nations and their allies against external threats; America’s role as the guarantor of freedom of the seas; the rule of law and much more. China thinks these institutions are hostile to its interests. Canada and the U.S., in common with the vast bulk of responsible nations, see them as bulwarks of international order and prosperity. Out of this will arise unavoidable and repeated conflicts. Best to think now about how to limit the damage. Hint: not by heedlessly throwing in our lot with the Chinese.

The CEOs spent most of their time whistling past the graveyard. To the warning of one of the conference’s distinguished speakers that Canada needs at all costs to avoid being caught between the U.S. and China, between our largest market and the fastest growing, most appeared to feel the correct response was to hope they had misheard.

They hadn’t. It is time for them, and us, to do what the CEOs professed to admire so much about the Chinese: to think about our interests in terms of centuries, not quarters. If we do, we will follow the sage advice of another speaker: not to act as supplicants grateful for crumbs, but to maintain the leverage that our coveted natural resources and other advantages give us.

China respects strength and resolve. So should we.

Brian Lee Crowley is managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: @MLInstitute

Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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