Canadian-Chinese relations are improving. The proof is in the pandas.
As has been widely reported, the Canadian government has secured a loan of two giant pandas from China. The animals will be shared between the Toronto and Calgary zoos over a period of 10 years.
The furry diplomats are generally understood to be a sign of appreciation from the Chinese government for Canada's increased openness to trade and, in my opinion, a decreased emphasis on human rights.
The Canadian government has undergone a fairly remarkable transformation in its relations with China.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper famously said, not long after the Conservatives were first elected in 2006, that he would not "sell out to the almighty dollar" and would remain firmly committed to promoting "important Canadian values" abroad. His government bestowed honorary Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama. He sat out the opening and closing ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics, a move widely perceived as a protest of human rights violations in China.
But in Beijing, Mr. Harper wasn't turning down any invitations, and talk of human rights was mostly relegated to private conversations.
The Canadian and Chinese governments have already declared their intentions towards a major deal on foreign investment, committed to greater cooperation in fighting crime and simplifying taxation and visa processes, and signed numerous commercial agreements on matters ranging from agriculture to education to mining.
While the precise content of these deals remains unclear, it seems likely that taken together they will generate billions in revenue for Canadian businesses over the medium term. The deals will also have a political impact, increasing Canadian credibility in a country that the prime minister acknowledged is "likely to soon return to what it has been for most of recorded history... the largest economy in the world."
Indeed, it is important for Canada to develop and diversify its trade beyond the North American continent. The bulk of Canadian exports will probably always go to the United States, but the rest of the world is currently underexploited by Canadian industries. China is an important prospective economic partner and should be engaged by Canada.
It is a well-known fact that hundreds of millions of Chinese people have been lifted out of poverty by industrialization and freer markets. But it is also true that China remains a country wracked by human rights violations and injustice. If the Canadian government truly believes in the rights and freedoms that Canadians enjoy, it has a moral duty to stand up for those same rights and freedoms abroad. Canada can't write the laws for other countries (although the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms is increasingly used as a template for bills of rights elsewhere). But ignoring violations will only ensure that they continue.
Beyond morality, however, the Canadian government has a legal duty to defend its own citizens. Husseyin Celil is a Canadian imprisoned in China following a 2007 conviction on unclear terrorism charges. Canadian consular officials have been denied access to him - a violation of international law. The Canadian government should be applying significant pressure on China for access to Mr. Celil and information about his case.
It may well be, as the Canadian government argues, that Canadian influence on Chinese political and legal affairs will be strengthened by Canada's economic partnership with China and that more can be achieved through private discussions than public condemnations. If that is indeed the case, the Canadian government should be proactive in starting these conversations, during and between official visits. The case of Mr. Celil will be a good indication of whether China is listening and whether closer economic ties are paying dividends in other areas as well.