Last year I received an e-mail from a high school friend who teaches English in foreign countries, and spent a year working in China. “I’m in Shenyang,” she wrote. “You’ve never heard of it, but it has around 20 million people.”
There are reportedly 95 cities in China with a population of more than one million, as well as some of the most populated cities in the world in Shanghai, Beijing and Hong Kong. China is a giant, no question, and lately it has become a giant with money to spend.
But while China is a capitalist’s paradise of polluting factories and cheap labour, it’s also a communist country that’s leaning totalitarian, where freedom of the press, assembly, religion, and travel are curtailed by the state. Despite having the yuan for it, China’s new wealthy class can’t travel just anywhere on holiday — which is why Canada is working to earn Approved Destination Status from the Chinese government.
Although the Chinese are not big skiers and mountain bikers, and tend to prefer destinations with gambling, shopping and nightlife, some will most certainly visit Whistler, if only for the views. If the dollars they spend here help us to earn back a few of the dollars we send to China for all the goods we buy, so much the better.
But it still makes me uneasy. It wasn’t that long ago that western nations imposed sanctions against China because of the totalitarian nature of its government. What’s really changed since then?
China still occupies Tibet, against the wishes of native Tibetans, and regularly threatens Taiwan, which doesn’t want to be part of a new Chinese empire. Maybe China does have some historical claims to those territories, but things change — the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire is consigned to the dustbins of history. People have a right to freedom and self-determination.
Watching a larger tragedy unfold in Burma, where perhaps thousands of Buddhist monks have been detained and slaughtered for their recent pro-democracy protests, we’re also reminded that China is Burma’s closest ally. While other countries have imposed sanctions on Burma’s military junta, China has continued to trade and profit from a mutual relationship.
(So have European and American oil companies through a loophole in the sanctions, but that’s another story.)
For their part, China has called for calm and tolerance from Burmese officials, but stopped short of threatening economic sanctions or other forms of retribution. That’s probably because China doesn’t exactly have a high horse to sit on after viciously clamping down on Buddhist monks in Tibet, and violently breaking up its own pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Some could argue that China has come a long way in the last decade and a half, but in the absence of another pro-democracy rally to test the Chinese government I have my doubts. That protest is unlikely to happen with people still rotting in prison after the last one.