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Responding to Campaigns Opposing the Canada-China Investment Agreement

Several recent campaigns are circulating information opposing the bilateral negotiations between the Canadian and Chinese governments for an investment agreement. The Foreign Investment Protection and Promotion Agreement (FIPA) undoubtedly must be opposed given that it is yet another agreement that will allow investor-state arbitration in order to bully communities in to accepting corporate demands. International capital investments in industrial infrastructure, mining, pipeline, and other extractive industries will affect local community control and environmental regulations.

However, with only a few weeks remaining until the agreement is likely to be finalized, a flawed campaign strategy may prevent the public from seeing the full picture.

The campaign against Canada-China FIPA is being promoted as if though Canada is being “sold,” is “selling out,” or is “for sale,” with the implication that only China will benefit from this agreement but Canada will not. The reality is that the Canadian state and corporations, as well as the Chinese state and its corporations, both benefit from this agreement.

Canada has signed 26 FIPAs, concluded seven others without signing, and is negotiating another 13. The government has been signing FIPAs since 1991 but developed a new model framework in 2004 and was first used in an agreement with Peru in 2006. At the time, we did not see a major national campaign in Canada opposing this agreement while Canadian corporations, particularly mining companies that have been facing popular opposition from peasant and Indigenous communities throughout Latin America, were the most prominent beneficiaries of the agreement. Canada does serve to benefit. Canada established the FIPA model in order to strengthen the rights of Canadian multinational corporations. FIPA is a Made in Canada agreement, not something proposed and imposed by China. So to suggest that FIPA ‘does not benefit Canada’ misses the mark.

Canadian corporations will be beneficiaries of investment protections for their operations in China, and vice-versa, with this new agreement. As Maude Barlow has pointed out, this agreement “will give Canadian corporations investing in China the right to sue the Chinese government if there is an attempt to improve existing human rights, labour or environmental standards.” Within Canada the agreement will also privilege foreign investment the Harper Governement badly wants to speed up resource projects in Canada in order to discipline or render harmless Indigenous and other community fightbacks, in exactly the same way the FIPAs do this for Canadian capital abroad.

Currently, Canada is involved in a Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement with the EU (CETA), has renewed one of its oldest bilateral trade agreements with Israel, completed a bilateral agreement with Colombia, is pursuing an investment agreement with India, and there are many more. In all of these cases, corporations – both state and privately owned – and the governments are working together to protect and advance financial investments while undermining grassroots democracy.

Given that Canada and is negotiating and entered such a wide range of agreements it seems that this agreement with China is receiving greater attention because of Canada’s rarely-held role as the potentially more vulnerable state party to this Agreement. This kind of outrage is, hypocritically, largely non-existent when Canada pursues agreements with other countries of the global South. In fact, earlier this month Canada very quietly completed a FIPA with Tanzania resulting in only two news stories and no public campaigns. It is possible that more capital will flow from China to Canada rather than the other way around. But the fear of loosing the relationship of Western domination over the global South seems to, at least in part, be motivating this frenzied response, rather than a principled analysis and response about the impact of the Agreement on the people and the environment.

As a result, the vulnerability of and impacts upon peasants, workers, and Indigenous communities in China remains absent from these campaigns.

It is unfortunate that a majority of opposing voices in the current campaign have chosen to homogenize China and the Chinese as a convenient boogie man. This is somewhat similar to how the campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement was led in Canada, where Canada was the victim and a ‘colony’ of the US (masking the fact that both states are products of colonialism), and the US was the bully. However, a lively anti-globalization movement eventually reframed these debates to identify the real victims and beneficiaries of international trade and investment agreements: multinational corporations benefit from agreements signed by politicians, who turn around and impose these investment and trade regimes onto communities without their consent.

The Canada-China agreement is no different. However in this case, “China Wants Canada’s Oil” or “China is taking over the world” not only misses a true analysis of the goals of both governments and the impacts on communities in both places, it also fosters anti-Asian and racist attitudes.

Racist attitudes drive trade instruments that guarantee exploitative labour for corporations. Migrant worker programs and outsourcing rely on the construction of “competing” workforces based on racial and national identities to provide the social license to justify dramatically lower wages and horrific working conditions to the “foreign worker.” The lives of two Chinese migrant workers that died working in the tar sands in 2007 serve as a stark reminder of how demonization of people of colour and other nationals assists the creation of a brutally unsafe working environment that would be deemed unsuitable for Canadian workers. With the economic recession and a documented rise in white supremacist and neo-nazi organizations throughout the West and including Canada, any legitimacy given to these polarizing attitudes is extremely worrying.

The mobilization against pipelines in British Columbia has also reproduced this framework by constantly referring to oil being shipped to China and Asian markets. The environmental community, however, is quite aware that there is a significant refining capacity on the west coast of the US. There has been a major grassroots campaign against a Richmond Chevron Refinery in California aiming to refine tar sands crude oil. It is well-documented that these tar sands products fuel the US military industrial complex. The Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain Pipeline also delivers crude south of the border to Washington State. Long-time environmental activist Rex Weyler has repeatedly stated that the real goal of these pipeline projects is to get the crude to international waters, where a global bidding process will drive up the price of the crude. And while the Chinese Government is certainly attempting to secure oil supplies by investing in the tar sands, the list of profiteers extracting bitumen is full of names like Suncor/PetroCanada, Syncrude, Shell, Chevron, ConocoPhillips, Imperial Oil, Total, and Exxon Mobil that receive Western state support. They are all driving tar sands development yet Chinese investment is raising more public concern, a sign of anti-Asian attitudes being influencial.

Market fundamentalism, the promotion of economic growth, and the relentless pursuit of profits has led corporations to secure ideal investment climates by any means necessary. When the Free Trade Area of the Americas was defeated, national governments pursued bilateral trade agreements on behalf of their corporate sponsors. And when bilaterals were not enough, Special Economic Zones (SEZs) are established where corporations write their own labor laws, environmental regulations, and taxation regimes.

The proliferation of SEZs and more conventional corporate land grabs in China has resulted in popular uprisings. In 2010, there were an estimated 180,000 mass incidents — protests, riots and group petitioning. Less than a year ago, farmers in Guangdong province protested for months due to land disputes and government land confiscations. Entering FIPA with Canada will provide one more instrument for multinational corporations to grab land from under the feet of farmers in China.

It is the governments of both China and Canada, while providing no support to people, are making everything available to multinational corporations. Everything must be commodified. Everything is for sale.

So is Canada for sale? Public institutions such as the health care system and water infrastructure are threatened with privatization and international investment wants in. But while people resist the dictates of the global finance to privatize the public we must also recognize that the establishment of the Canadian state itself is based on one of the largest acts of violence and land grabs. Indigenous lands were settled, a legal regime of Crown and private property was established, and Indigenous people were killed and displaced in order to sell land and natural resources to the highest bidder. This model of imposition and exploitation has been used by Canada long before the first investment agreement was ever established. A campaign suggesting that Stephen Harper is suddenly “selling Canada” to China hides the fact that Canada has always been in the business of taking and selling off Indigenous lands, now there are just different buyers.

The links between modern Free Trade Agreements and the history of colonization must be made visible. A publication produced by GRAIN and bilaterals.org titled “Colonization redux: new agreements, old games” traces FTAs and investment agreements to their colonial roots: “While some may see the bewildering proliferation of bilateral FTAs and BITs throughout the world as a relatively new phenomenon, it has deep roots… The origins of today’s FTA mania lie in a long history of colonial exploitation, capitalism and imperialism.. The classic colonial state was structured for the exploitation and extraction of resources.”

We need an alternative approach to the current anti-FIPA campaign. Of course, defending “Canada” from “China” has campaign traction. But, tactically speaking, choosing a more limited but convenient analysis may also limit the effectiveness of the campaign. In 2000, labour activists Kent Wong and Elaine Bernard raised principled as well as tactical concerns about a US labour-led campaign against China’s attempt to gain Permanent Normal Trade Relations status. They wrote, “While the campaign was launched with the intent of promoting internationalism and avoiding China-bashing, we fear that the ultimate impact of the campaign has been to fuel cold war politics, encourage an unholy alliances with the right wing, and has resulted in racially offensive messages. As well, the campaign has weakened the strong anti-corporate and international solidarity focus coming out of the anti-WTO protests in Seattle.” A more principled and effective path that avoids the reinforcement of racist attitudes and complete invisiblization of colonial history is possible.

Like the history of nations, the history of people’s movements shapes our present reality. Many committed organizers have struggled for years to reorient this impulse to “protect Canada” towards building solidarity between communities impacted by FTAs around the world. Proliferation of this work has created diverse movements united all over the globe – especially led by rural, Indigenous, and peasant communities – that recognize how legal, trade, and investment regimes are used to divide, rule, exploit, and oppress communities.

A place to begin articulating an alternative approach is to speak about defending communities and the land rather than defending Canada. We must reject anti-Chinese racism, affirm Aboriginal title and Indigenous self-determination, and not cast Canada as a helpless victim. The 1%, the elites, and their political friends tell us investment is good for Canada, for Canadian interests, for Canadian jobs, and for the Canadian economy. If their message is to protect Canada maybe we need to play from a different script.

The argument that “we will lose popular support if we are too radical” is a circular and self-fulfilling argument. Anti-Asian racism may mobilize people if it continues to be promoted, and Indigenous solidarity may not mobilize people until it is actively prioritized. Similar to the movement against tar sands and fracking pipelines that has rallied alongside Indigenous communities and prioritized Indigenous voices, trade justice campaigns should also build genuine solidarity – locally and globally – to strengthen community power.

The message of a movement against FIPA should be to state that the goals of the agreement are not possible, that neither government can promise investment certainty or investment security to international capital because people’s uprisings will continue to create uncertainty for the elite. That governments may sign agreements and issue permits, but the people will remain in the way. That we will organize in solidarity with directly affected frontline communities both locally and globally to create another 180,000 mass incidents.

Harjap Grewal is the Pacific Regional Organizer for the Council of Canadians and also organizes in support of migrant justice, indigenous self-determination and global social movements. On twitter: http://twitter.com/harjap