Canadian “First Nations” appeal to Chinese government

February 13, 2012

Two days ago, the New York Times published a story on how representatives of Canadian “First Nations” sent an open letter to Chairman Hu Jintao stating their rights, guaranteed under the Canadian constitution, to be consulted before work on a number of planned Chinese-financed developments through their territory begins. Previously, they had visited the head of the China Investment Corporation, the Chinese sovereign wealth fund.

The letter was timed to the signing of a bilateral investment treaty and an agreement between Canada’s Canaccord investment bank and China’s state-owned Export-Import Bank to to establish a $1bn fund to invest in Canadian natural resources.

The authors focus on the way such developments challenge China’s non-interference policy in that they drag Chinese investors into domestic disputes. They link this story to the recent kidnappings of Chinese workers by various African armed opposition groups, which share with the Canadians the claim to be fighting for indigenous rights but which Chinese media often usually describe as insurgents and sometimes as terrorists. In the Canadian case, this is trickier, since the “indigenous” cause has much traction.

It seems to me that the non-interference question is not the most interesting angle, even though parallels with Tibetan groups’ appeals to Western governments are certainly titillating. (Footnote: In 2008, Chinese Internet posters, indignant with Western media’s perceived support for Tibetan “splittism,” suggested organising demonstrations supporting the Scottish independence movement for the 2012 Olympics in London. Let’s see if they do.)

There is, too, the reminder that “development” does not always happen in poor countries; the rich West has its own poor areas, and Chinese inestors are beginning to change them.

But what I find more intriguing is this thought: the logic of special rights for ethnic minorities is in fact a familiar one to Chinese leaders, as is the language of development balanced with the protection of the environment and culture, couched in morally charged terms, and the need to deal with “traditional leaders.” One might even suggest that the ideology of indigenous exceptionalism fits better with the current Chinese idea of “harmonious development,” in which the state plays the balancing role (in appeasing competing interests, but also in trying to ensure a minimum of social stability), than with free-market liberalism.