Chretien rips into Harper for Beijing absence
The Canadian Press
Published Monday, August 18, 2008 5:40PM EDT
QUEBEC - Prime Minister Stephen Harper was wrong when he decided not to attend the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics and Canada could pay a heavy price for his absence, Jean Chretien said Monday.
Chretien said he wouldn't have "hesitated a second" in going to China if he had still been prime minister.
The former prime minister says Harper should have been at the celebration given China's economic and demographic clout and the mentality of its leaders.
"It is the second biggest economy in the world, and in 50 years it will be the biggest," Chretien said after a speech to the annual meeting of the Canadian Bar Association.
"Starting with Diefenbaker, Trudeau and all of us, we established very good relations, relatively speaking, with China.
"And suddenly, you break the bridge. It would have been easy just to be there."
Harper has insisted his decision to stay away from the Games had nothing to do with politics, but rather with a scheduling conflict.
The prime minister, who hasn't visited the country since 2006, said earlier this month he hopes the Games will prompt greater change in the country.
Canada was represented at the Aug. 8 opening ceremonies by Foreign Affairs Minister David Emerson, while Secretary of State for Sport Helena Guergis and B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell also attended.
Among international leaders, U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy attended, but British Prime Minister Gordon Brown was a no-show.
Chretien referred to Sarkozy, who went to China after he backed off on a threat to boycott the Games.
"Look at the speech by Sarkozy on China," Chretien said. "He had to swallow himself whole and he went there. The Chinese are like that. `OK, fine, you don't like us, we're not buying French food'."
Stressing that he always maintained very good relations with China when he was in charge of the government, Chretien said he believes relations between Canada and China have deteriorated since the Conservatives came to power.
"As a Canadian, I deplore the fact we've lost our position in the world."
Canada has fallen to the bottom of the list of countries China wants to do business with, Chretien said.
"Ask any businessman who goes to China and they'll tell you that."
A spokesperson in Harper's office said Chretien attended only one Olympics opening ceremony during his tenure as prime minister.
Chretien, meanwhile, said the lack of democracy in China should not have been a factor in any world leader's decision not to go to Beijing.
"We do business with Saudi Arabia and they're not a big democracy," Chretien said, adding he believes China has made a lot of progress in respecting human rights in recent years.