Canada and human rights in China: Are we making a difference?

- February 10th, 2012

Here’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper speaking in Shanghai at a dinner organized by the Canada-China Business Council. It is Dec. 4, 2009. After spending most of his speech talking about the importance of boosting the trading relationship between the two countries, there is this bit:

But ladies and gentlemen, just as trade is a two-way street, so too is dialogue.  Our government believes, and has always believed, that a mutually beneficial economic relationship is not incompatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental values like freedom, human rights and the rule of law.  In fact, in our experience they go hand in hand, increasingly so, as economies progress.  Canada, while far from perfect, is one of the most peaceful, pluralistic and prosperous democracies the world has ever known.  To Canadians, these attributes are inseparable, and Canadians of Chinese origin participate as fully in them as any of our citizens.
And so, in relations between China and Canada, we will continue to raise issues of freedom and human rights, and be a vocal advocate and an effective partner for human rights reform, just as we pursue the mutually beneficial economic relationship desired by both our countries.

Three weeks later, on Dec. 25, 2009,  Liu Xiaobo, a professor who wrote some essays calling for democratic reforms, was tried in Chinese court (neither the public nor his family were allowed to attend the trial), convicted, and sentenced for his “freedom of expression” to 11 years in jail. Last year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and became the first winner of that prize to be given it while in jail.

Now here’s the prime minister just about two years later, on Feb. 10, 2012, speaking in Guangzhou at a dinner organized by the Canada-China Business Council. Liu is still in jail. After spending most of his speech talking about the importance of boosting the trading relationship between the two countries, there is this bit:

Canada does not - and cannot -disconnect our trading relationship from fundamental national values.
Canadians understand that our own wealth and prosperity have come about and are broadly shared, not just because of abundant resources and hard work but because of our commitment to freedom, democracy, the rule of law and human rights for everyone.
Canadians believe, and have always believed, that the kind of mutually beneficial economic relationship we seek … is also compatible with a good and frank dialogue on fundamental principles such as  freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of belief and worship.
And they demand that their government – and their businesses –  uphold these national characteristicsin all our dealings.
Canadians also demand that their government be a responsible global citizen in dealing with the peace and security challenges that confront the world …
And, wherever we can, urge other governments,including global actors like China,to do the same.
In saying these things,let me be clear …
that I do not claim to fully understandthe unique kinds of challenges that a huge,emerging,spectacularly expanding economy, such as this one, faces.
Today,the drive in from the airport is a powerful picture of how millions of people are bettering their lives through industry and investment.
Without a doubt, this is its own kind of liberation.
Nor do I ignore the undeniable differences of Chinese culture and history
However, as Canadians our history has taught us that economic, social and political development are, over time, inseparable.
And it is our national creed that people of all cultures can be Canadian, enjoying and participating in all aspects of our democratic society as, indeed,Canadians of Chinese origin,do today.
Therefore,in relations between China and Canada,you should expect us to continue to raise issues of fundamental freedoms and human rights – and to be a vocal advocate for these … just as we will be an effective partner in our growing and mutually beneficial economic relationship.

Now it is certainly too much for anyone to think that a Canadian prime minister all by himself or herself is going to be able to force China’s regime to change. But clearly, the Chinese are stung when his name is mentioned. Why shouldn’t our leader — the leader of any Western nation — bring his name up in public. Wouldn’t that be “frank”? Isn’t that what a “vocal advocate” for “fundamental freedoms and human rights” would do? Don’t you think that if enough leaders did that, it might finally get through to the leadership here?

Here’s Simon Leys on this point:

When [Liu] was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, Chinese authorities acted hysterically: his wife, his friends, and his acquaintances were all subjected to various forms of arbitrary detention to ensure that none of them would be able to go to Oslo to collect the prize on his behalf. Today his wife, Liu Xia, is in her second year of house arrest without charges. These dramatic measures had one clear historical precedent: in 1935, the Nazi authorities gave the same treatment to the jailed political dissenter Carl von Ossietsky.
At the Oslo ceremony, an empty chair was substituted for the absent laureate. Within hours, the words “empty chair” were banned from the Internet in China—wherever they occurred, the entire machinery of censorship was automatically set in motion.
Foreign experts in various intelligence organizations are trying to assess the growing strength of China, politically, economically, and militarily. The Chinese leaders are most likely to have a clear view of their own power. If so, why are they so scared of a frail and powerless poet and essayist, locked away in jail, cut off from all human contacts? Why did the mere sight of his empty chair at the other end of the Eurasian continent plunge them into such a panic?

Why, indeed.

 

 

Categories: Politics

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