In January 2015, Chinese Ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui wrote in the Globe and Mail that “developing China-Canada relations is like sailing against current. You either advance or recede.” In an effort to kick start a new round of energized conversations with Canadians, he staked out an ambitious policy agenda which would bring Canada-China relations to a new level of cooperation.
From the perspective of most Canadians, China represents the latest manifestation of a low cost manufacturer of consumables. While this viewpoint used to characterize the China miracle, it is no longer valid. It fails to capture the breathtaking changes occurring in the country. The growth rate of the business sector, the scale of operations in the public sector, the single-mindedness of the government to surpass the productivity of advanced economies and meet the huge challenges of pollution, urbanization and the pressure from citizens for greater inclusion are all creating an environment for enormous political and social change.
At the same time, the Chinese population is adjusting to the “new normal” of seven percent annual economic growth (in comparison with 14 percent) that will undoubtedly challenge the government’s ability to satisfy the expectations of the new middle class and those who aspire to middle class status. Given that 48 percent of the economy operates in the service industry, the relentless drive for growth and increased consumption is already creating strains on infrastructure in the large cities and the need to create meaningful jobs.
The question of whether China is a major world economic and political power is no longer debatable. The increasing presence of most of the world’s largest global corporations and the intense competition among the leading trading nations for preferential arrangements with the “Middle Kingdom” is strong evidence that the balance of global power is tilting ever so steadily in the direction of Beijing.
As a result, the two annual events taking place in Beijing this March had more significance than in previous years. They signalled the kickoff to the political year in China and, more important, provided a clear line of sight as to where President Xi is guiding the nation.
The first was the meeting of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Committee (CPPCC). The CPPCC is a national body comprised of 2,200 delegates chosen from across the country to debate future government priorities. Fully 40 percent of its delegates are members of the Communist Party and the remaining members are drawn from the business, academic, labour and not-for-profit sectors. Their principal task is to make policy proposals to the government on matters they judge are in the best interest of the nation. They have tabled more than 6,000 proposals over the past five years, many of which have covered economic and sustainable development and education, healthcare, housing and employment. To date, the government has responded to more than 5,046 of the policy proposals.
The meeting of the CPPCC was immediately followed by a meeting of the National Peoples Congress (NPC) under the watchful eye of President Xi Jinping. The NPC is made up of almost 3,000 deputies of whom 23% are women, 14% are from ethnic groups, and 13% are with worker or farming backgrounds. Deputies gain membership to the NPC by being elected through a progressively complex system that starts at the grassroots level and moves up to increasingly more senior levels of government.
Against this backdrop, the NPC deliberated on this year’s proposals and decided on a number of priorities that will form the basis of the government’s activities for the next five years. Among the highest priorities are: (1) continuing efforts to drive corruption out of government, state owned enterprises and the private sector; (2) more targeted actions to reduce the level of pollution in all areas of the country; (3) a 10 percent increase in defence spending, especially in the navy; and (4) strengthening the judicial system to improve the effectiveness of the rule of law.
All of these objectives will resonate with Canadians, but more important, they offer an opportunity for Canada to participate in achieving these goals.
Specifically, China appears to be at a tipping point in its efforts to modernize the country. This provides an opportunity for the steady hand of an old friend of China to play a pivotal role in its development as one of the world’s most enduring cultures.
As Ambassador Luo said in the concluding paragraph, “We are confident that by addressing [our] differences with wisdom and long-term perspective, we will fully be able to make cooperation the main theme of our bilateral relations.”
The author recently spent four weeks of independent work in Beijing.