Who'd have guessed that sup porters of human rights in China would be applauding Stephen Harper while business executives pine for the good old days of Chretien-led trade junkets?
Not that Chinese democracy has made much headway on the activist agenda here. While the Mideast has become a flashpoint for solidarity types, annual remembrance ceremonies for the Tiananmen Square massacre and for the thousands of dissenters in Chinese prisons grow smaller every year. The brave and tireless campaigning of the Falun Gong has elicited very little backing on the barricades - and the large Chinese-Canadian community is generally silent.
So I find myself wondering whether Harper's comments during the recent APEC summit in Hanoi that Canada will not let business interests trump human rights aren't actually a good move for the world. I'm not alone.
Sure, everything the minority-government PM does is electioneering. Here, he gets to look resolute on the global stage. When we saw that last, it was his Afghanistan war tour.
Still, it's a policy shift that has weirded out his traditional supporters in the business community. Heavy hitters like Thomas d'Aquino of the Canadian Council of Chief Executives (CCCE) have weighed in against the PM. In the general glee this inspires, it might be easy to forget that China represents an unmitigated human rights disaster.
According to reports from Amnesty International and the International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, more, not fewer, dissidents, democracy activists and journalists have been jailed in China since Canada's current era of quiet diplomacy began after Tiananmen Square.
Hundreds of demonstrations, rarely reported in the Western press, occur in China every day. The Internet is heavily censored there, labour rights in China make McDonald's look like a workers' paradise, and a report tabled last summer by former Liberal cabinet minister David Kilgour says China is harvesting organs from devotees of Falun Gong and selling them to transplant patients.
It's always been a head-scratcher that a consumer boycott of Chinese goods, like the one against South African products during the dying days of apartheid, has never been a hot item. It's true that North American companies have been shamed into reducing their reliance on sweatshop labour, but Chinese goods sold in the Wal-Mart chain alone account for an astounding 2 per cent of China's gross domestic product.
In other words, it was easier to refrain from buying South African wine than it is to not buy a cheap DVD player (or, I should add, a cheap, good-sounding microphone or guitar) .
It's no wonder those who have China in their sights are feeling like the tide is finally turning in Ottawa.
"China is a bigger menace than the war on terror," says David Van Praagh, a former correspondent in Asia and author of the upcoming book Axis Or Alliance? Southeast Asia Between China And Freedom.
"If it hadn't been for 9/11, we'd be in a very different situation with China. What's going on there is massive repression, but unlike Hitler or Stalin, with the Chinese dictatorship people are making money out of trade with China."
China, says Van Praagh, needs Canada more than we need it, especially for the raw materials and oil the Chinese need to be a superpower against the U.S. "There are two world wars going on at the same time right now: the war on terror and a cold war that could get hot against China," he says. "And there is very real fear out there that we just might lose this."
At the Toronto chapter of the Chinese National Council, executive director Karen Sun feels positive about Harper's position.
"It's good that he's speaking out," she says. "It is an uncomfortable issue. When was the last time you went to Wal-Mart? We are complicit in the oppression going on on the other side of the world. We are part of the problem, so everyone begins to look like a hypocrite."
Sun says that there are both cultural and political reasons why the Chinese-Canadian community is often mum on the human rights issue. "There is a long history (in China) that if you speak out you will be punished," she says, "so parents don't encourage this."
Cheuk Kwan of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, too, appreciates Harper's hard edge. "China is very skilful at hiding what it is doing, but China does respect you if you stand firm. In the end, they are businessmen first."
At Rights and Democracy, an org created by Canada's Parliament to encourage human rights, president Jean-Louis Roy says he's surprised by the reaction from d'Aquino's group.
"Investment and business are very important," he says. "But business needs legal and national institutions that it can trust. We're asking the Chinese to respect the rule of law."
China, he warns, isn't just any country; it's a world power playing a huge role, including selling arms to pariah regimes like Sudan.
"If we don't ask questions now, we will find ourselves in a very different world in two or three decades."