Sold Down the Yangtze, by Osgoode Hall law professor Gus Van Harten, is an incredibly in-depth treatment of a very complex and potentially important issue – but that doesn’t make it a good book. An expert in international investment treaties, Van Harten brings an astonishing depth of knowledge of this subject in general, and in particular to the Canada–China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (FIPA) that was negotiated by Stephen Harper’s government and ratified in September 2014.
As the title of the book suggests, Van Harten is highly critical of the deal, and the case that he makes is awfully convincing. It does seem highly problematic that federal governments of the distant future will be locked into this agreement. It is troubling that disputes related to the treaty will be resolved in secret by arbitrators and not judges. And it does seem that the uneven standards between the two countries, especially as they relate to labour and the environment, make it a bad deal for Canada.
Even Van Harten’s conclusion, where he argues that the Harper government’s haste to agree to such a lopsided deal was intended to allow for a rapid and relatively unfettered injection of Chinese money into the Canadian tar sands, seems reasonable despite his lack of hard supporting evidence.
The problem – and it’s a significant one – is that this is not an especially engaging read. Sold Down the Yangtze combines some of the worst traits of both academic writing and legal writing. There are lots of references to arguments and facts made in past and future chapters. The text is laden with acronyms (WTO TRIMs is my personal favourite). And it will be difficult for a reader who is not an expert in this area not only to follow this book, but to understand why the Canada–China FIPA matters to them and why they should care about it.
These are difficult tasks for any writer, but especially an academic used to addressing a small audience that is theoretically already interested in the topic. If Van Harten had done more to make this book accessible and easier to engage with, there is a better chance he would start to make people care as much as he does about this issue.