Who are they, and who are we?

by Terence MacNamee

David Mulroney was the Canadian ambassador to China up till 2012. In a speech to the C.D. Howe Institute in Canada just after leaving his post, he quoted Chinese strategist Sun Tzu: “without knowing the lie of hills and woods, of cliffs and crags, you cannot march.” His comment was: “we have got to get more serious and systematic in thinking about China.” But he went on to say: “if the ancient Chinese reminded us of the importance of knowing the other, the ancient Greeks reminded us of the importance of knowing ourselves. We need to think carefully about what we want from a relationship with China.”

He also said: “our future prosperity, security and well-being depend on working out our relationship with a country that is almost wholly unlike us.” This line of thinking studiously ignores the presence of the Chinese-Canadians, who form a natural bridge between the two countries. But for the WASP élite that Mulroney was addressing, I daresay his estimation is right.

Mulroney has now written a book called Middle power, middle kingdom. Lacking a wider perspective on China, his thinking does not go beyond the political and economic interests of Canada there. The middle kingdom of the title is China; the middle power is Canada, which is finding it hard to reposition itself in a changing world.

A recent commentator in the Toronto Globe & Mail found that “this book is not so much about a surging China as it is about a sinking Canada.“ And he asks: “are we a North American country, or are we a Pacific country, or are we both?“

Indeed, it is quite right for Canada’s élites to be thinking about the country’s future relationship with China. Mulroney and others know that China has been changing and will change further. It does not seem to occur to them that Canada is changing and will change further too; and that Chinese-Canadians are bound to have something to do with it.