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Is it time to walk away from trade with China?

If China wants to keep trading with the West, it needs to do something about the living standards of its working people
chinese flag waving getty images
(Getty Images)

By Jack Buckby
Research associate
Frontier Centre for Public Policy 

The idea that our entire civilization could depend on millions of foreign slaves that we pretend don’t exist is like something out of a dystopian novel. But it’s the world in which we’ve lived for decades. COVID-19 is proving to be the wake-up call we needed.

With cheap goods comes cheap labour, and with cheap labour comes poor standards of living and extreme poverty.

To Western nations, viral outbreaks like the pandemic we’re experiencing are entirely avoidable. We live comfortably in less densely populated communities, our meat is individually packaged and thrown away the moment it’s about to spoil, and even those working minimum-wage jobs can afford a meal that won’t make them sick.

But it’s not the same in China, with many of those living in poverty and manufacturing goods for Western economies depending on wet markets for food.

A 2018 study from the Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ont., looked at the impact of proximity to wet markets and supermarkets on household dietary diversity, looking specifically at Nanjing City. This is a city of more than eight million people, and the study found that three-quarters of its residents visit a wet market five times a week. That means most people mingle on an almost daily basis in markets that Westerners would describe as dirty, surrounded by caged live and exotic animals. 

This is an everyday reality for the workers who keep Western economies stocked up, and given that COVID-19 may well have originated in a Wuhan, China, wet market, it poses a few questions.

Is it the responsibility of the West to govern how other people live? And if so, at what point do we intervene, how do we intervene and is it even possible to successfully encourage change at the very core of the Chinese economy?

To the Chinese Communist Party, Canada and the rest of the world are just customers who will pay money for cheap products with zero regard for the health and well-being of the people tasked with manufacturing those products.

It’s a moral dilemma for the West and an economic one for China. Asking China to end wet markets isn’t that simple when it’s a source of food for millions of the country’s citizens. It’s a big demand that can’t be achieved by simply telling the country what to do. The fact that it requires a new approach to ensuring citizens are fed is obstacle enough. But the fact that this is a communist nation too proud to admit fault makes it an even bigger demand.

With tens of millions of Westerners out of work, though, it’s a demand that more people are making. If China is unwilling to change its ways, domestic manufacturing will remain a big point of discussion and it will likely become a popular policy adopted by politicians looking to gain power. And that should frighten China.

If China wants to keep trading with the West, it needs to do something about the living standards of its working people. That’s largely because Westerners realize that dirty conditions in wet markets breed bacteria and viruses that can bring the entire global economy to a grinding halt. Suddenly, the poverty suffered by the Chinese underclass is affecting the rest of the world.

China must end its communist trait of propagandizing and lying at every turn. A tall order, but perhaps one that can be achieved through soft power and diplomacy.

This isn’t a time for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s unique blend of sappiness and sycophancy, and perhaps it’s not even time for U.S. President Donald Trump’s aggression and anger. Diplomatic matters with China can’t be approached in conventional ways.

The level of trust between China and Canada is undoubtedly low, and diplomatic discussions are tainted by propagandized comments and postulations. Perhaps, instead, the only way to get China to do something about these wet markets, and become more co-operative with the rest of the world, is simply to walk away.

Canada imported $75.55 billion worth of goods from China in 2018 and without the rest of Canada’s allies, the Chinese economy would crumble. Is it time to set an example to the rest of the Western world and walk away from China? 

Words can only go so far. Even suing China or demanding that debt owed to the country be wiped out can only go so far. Britain’s Henry Jackson Society think-tank recently published a report that argued China should be sued by G7 nations for £3.2 trillion ($5.6 trillion) for the monumental damage done to our economies. 

But such a move depends initially on China’s willingness to even consider such a possibility and later its willingness to act on it.

At that point we must ask whether our expectations are realistic.

Canada has both resources to restart the domestic manufacturing of key medical supplies and equipment, and good relationships with other big manufacturing economies.

Perhaps the best influence we can have on China, and the lives of its citizens who are also struggling at the centre of this, is walking away until they’re willing to make meaningful changes to how they operate domestically and communicate with the rest of the world.

Jack Buckby is a research associate with Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of this publication.  

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