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China’s actions, including hostage-taking, demand a response

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn’t often get things right, but he was certainly correct this week when he accused China of holding two Canadians hostage in retaliation for this country’s role in the U.S. extradition plans for Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou.

“These charges are politically motivated and completely groundless,” said Pompeo in a statement, calling for the immediate release of former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor.

The two men have been held since late 2018 on espionage charges widely decried as bogus. Last week, they were formally charged in the process of a Chinese show trial.

The move against the two men is part of a growing pattern of aggression and human-rights abuses carried out by China. We’ve seen military posturing, espionage and intellectual property theft increase, along with growing concerns about cyber threats. Recent trade wars and the practices that led to the development and spread of COVID-19 had put the authoritarian country under a microscope.

A poll released last week, for instance, found Canadians want to see more action from Ottawa when it comes to addressing China’s abuses. Conducted for the partisan Macdonald-Laurier Institute, the poll found 26.4 per cent of Canadians were highly negative about the Canadian government’s performance, more than seven times larger than those who were highly positive, 3.7 per cent.

Respondents were also asked whether they believed the government should speak up more or be quiet when it comes to China’s alleged abuses –  some 80 per cent of Canadians surveyed feel that the government should speak up more than they are doing now, with 40 percent responding that the government should speak up “a lot more.”

Ottawa has long been criticized for its handling of relations with China, particularly over refusal to block Chinese investment in the company, a particular problem for communist state-owned enterprises. Nor has the government done enough to block spying, corporate espionage and theft of intellectual property such as research – blocking foreign ownership, disbanding the likes of Confucius Institutes and expelling suspicious persons are all measures being recommended.

Blackberry founder Jim Balsillie, chair of the Council of Canadian Innovators, last week told a House committee that foreign investment rules fail to properly protect intellectual property and new technology.

Foreign governments, China principal among them, have access to research and intellectual property, often through working with Canadian universities. Security agencies have warned against such  partnerships, among a host of concerns about China.

High among the list of concerns is avoiding use of equipment from Huawei, which has already been banned from participating in the rollout of 5G technologies in the U.S., Australia and other key Canadian allies.

Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has waffled on China, though has generally been critical of its practices (a hawk-ish opinion has predominated since the rise of the “Wuhan virus”).

Dan Coats, former director of National Intelligence, has testified that industries from automaking to software creation to military research and development have all been targeted by Chinese efforts to pilfer trade secrets.

“While we were sleeping in the last decade and a half, China had a remarkable rise … a significant amount of that was achieved by stealing information from our companies,” he told Congress in a presentation last year.

“We have alerted our allies. They are now second-guessing and questioning their initial response to China: ‘Oh it’s a great market, we need to get over there – don’t worry about anything else except selling our product,’ ” he said. “They’re now finding that their product has been duplicated by the Chinese and sold for half the price because they didn’t have to spend as much money on research and development.”

Criticisms of  Chinese trade policies – lots of cheap crap, currency manipulation and trade barriers – is something to which we can all relate.

If you gathered up all of the Chinese-made products in your home, dragged them out to the backyard and had a giant bonfire, chances are your house would seem much emptier. It’s also a pretty good guess your home would be safer. On the downside, the fire would release huge amounts of toxins into the environment, and earn you a not-so-friendly visit from the fire department and other officials.

There has been plenty of talk about offshore job losses as many companies set up shop in China. Add to that the environmental concerns due to that country’s lack of controls and the issue of buying items manufactured there becomes more than just the price tag. The question, then, is how much are we willing to pay to buy from other sources?

Those of you who’ve been around long enough will remember when the label “Made in Japan” was both common and the sign of some low-cost, low-quality goods. Later, Taiwan was a frequent source. Today, of course, “Made in China” appears on a wide variety of products.

With a frequency that wasn’t seen from past imports, those Chinese-made goods are the subjects of health scares and product recalls. There’s a long list of unsafe toys (lead paint and other toxins, swallowing hazards) and even more dangerous foods (melamine, heavy metals, toxins). There have been scares involving toothpaste, pet food and unsafe tires.

While the government is unlikely to place a ban on Chinese-made products, or even the most risky categories of goods, Canadians can vote for change with their wallets.

Stop buying Chinese products and maybe they’ll change the way they do things.

That’s easier said than done, of course. We’re happy with the low prices that come from China’s lack of labour, environmental and safety regulations, even if manufacturers and retailers are passing on the full savings they enjoy by doing business there.

Some of us may talk about buying Canadian (or from the U.S., Europe and other locales that aren’t China), but where a product is made is usually secondary to other consumer concerns. How they were made – including the materials used and whether they’re recyclable, what kind of pollution may have been generated – play a more important role for some consumers.

In the end, it boils down to people voting with their wallets: Walmart doesn’t appear to be in danger of closing any time soon. It might take some work and a few more dollars to wean ourselves from those boatloads of cheap goods.

It’s clear the federal government will take no action, and multinational corporations care not one whit for what is right. The onus is on each of us. In which case, the status quo seems likely.

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