Principles needed in Canada-China engagement

By The Hon. David Kilgour on May 28, 2009

While in Shanghai recently, Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon correctly noted that Canada can keep its “principled position” on human dignity while pursuing trade with China. Principles and reality, however, should have kept him from saying that his hosts”had made progress” on human rights. He ought to know that basic rights for the most vulnerable among the Chinese people are worsening today.

A year after the Sichuan earthquake, Amnesty International called on the  government of China to stop harassing parents mourning children killed in the tragedy. Authorities arrested and  detained relatives of some of the more than 5,000 child victims for trying to get answers about how they died.  Even an eight-year-old was detained.

In anticipation of the anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre, pressure is intensifying. “If anything, the crackdown on human rights activists is escalating as we approach the 20th anniversary of the 1989 Beijing pro-democracy protests,” said Roseann Rife, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Deputy Director.  “Most worrying is the complete disregard for national laws and the obstructions thrown in front of lawyers trying to do their jobs.”

Reporters without Borders says China is still the country which jails the largest number of journalists, cyber-dissidents, Internet-users and freedom of expression advocates. With much of the world watching the Olympics last August, about one hundred Chinese journalists, Internet users and bloggers languished in prisons. Human Rights Watch reported that workers building the ‘Bird’s Nest’ and dozens of other Olympic Games facilities were exploited, from child labour on assembly lines to deadly working conditions on construction sites.

When Mao’s army took control of Tibet and forced its government into exile fifty years ago, tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed and even more imprisoned. Over 6,000 monasteries, nunneries and temples have been pillaged. Thousands more Tibetans were imprisoned over the past year.

In early 2009,  Beijing police abducted Gao Zhizheng, a Nobel Peace Prize-nominated human rights lawyer. Gao was named one of China’s top ten lawyers until he defended Falun Gong practitioners. He has since been repeatedly arrested and tortured. His family, including his four-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, were harassed and attacked by police until their escape recently to the United States.

Such practices speak clearly about the party-state’s intransigence against calls by the international community to improve its human rights. They are consistent with Beijing’s rejection of the recommendations advanced by a number of governments, including Canada’s, in a recent Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Commission.

Among the rejected recommendations: ending all forms of arbitrary detention, including labour camps; guaranteeing  freedom of belief and the right to worship in private; implementing the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture, which  included references to the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners and organ pillaging from them; and ensuring that lawyers can defend their clients without fear or harassment.

Although trade is a vital part of Canada’s economy, commerce with China, where no freedom of media exists, has been a costly proposition for many. In the words of Phelim Kine who pinpointed the consequence of the unfree media: “The truths of corruption, public health scandals, environmental crises and abusive local authorities may be inconvenient...( but to) smother the reporting of these truths has contributed measurably to other global debacles, including recall of tainted food and toys.”

Two Montreal residents, for example, Guizhi Chen and Lian Yao, recently described making a range of consumer products for export as forced labourers in China. This and other violations of  fair trading practices no doubt contributed to Canada’s trade deficit rising from $3.9 billion in 1997 to $26.8 billion in 2006 in China’s favour, while costing many jobs across Canada.

Forced labour as a consequence of human trafficking is all too common today, but only the party-state of China  defends the practice and has operated a vast network of labour camps  since the 1950s. In the estimated 340 camps across China as of 2005, up to 300,000 “workers” toil in inhuman conditions for up to sixteen hours daily without any pay, producing a wide range of consumer products, mostly for export, in violation of World Trade Organization rules.

On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Beijing’s June 4 bloody crackdown of the student-led democratic movement, it is obvious that there has been little progress on human rights. Mr. Cannon’s remarks are misguided at best and a serious departure from principles at worst.

The Canadian government should stand with the Chinese people, not the party state,  and call for human dignity and respect of all.


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