Talking to a Great Wall
Canada's human rights dialogue with China has yielded nothing
CHARLIE GILLIS | July 9, 2007 |
Exactly when it became impossible for Ottawa and other Western governments to pretend their bilateral talks with China on human rights were anything more than a charade is difficult to pinpoint. But a good case can be made for June 4, 2005, the day a soft-spoken diplomat from the Chinese consulate general in Sydney hid away his wife and daughter, eluded Beijing's ever-vigilant minders and threw himself at the mercy of the government of Australia.
Chen Yonglin's defection from China was a moment of triumph -- not to mention high atmospherics -- for pro-democracy partisans living outside the country. That afternoon in Sydney, the bookish 37-year-old took the stage at a rally commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and renounced his allegiance to a government that had provided him an enviable living. For too long, he told the rapturous crowd in Martin Place, Beijing has ruled its people at the end of a gun.
Neither Australia nor Canada nor 10 other democracies trying to make nice with China were inclined to celebrate, though. In the ensuing days, this affable, mid-ranking official produced a series of documents and anecdotes illuminating the two-faced nature of Chinese diplomacy over the past eight years, and by extension, the embarrassing depth of Western credulity. Even as Canberra, Washington, Ottawa and London were earnestly sending officials to closed-door meetings on human rights that began in 1997, Chen and his colleagues were stepping up spying and harassment activities against expatriates belonging to Falun Gong, the free-Tibet movement and pro-democracy groups. The idea, Chen told Maclean's in a recent interview, was to make life miserable for the dissidents' relatives back home. As for the bilateral dialogue: "We all knew it was meaningless. Everyone at the consulate general knew the talks were just a way to avoid international criticism. The notion that China would play a constructive role in international affairs was very deceptive."
Chen isn't the first to suggest China has spent the last decade playing Western governments for fools. His revelations count among a series from academics, journalists and other Chinese asylum-seekers indicating the so-called bilateral dialogues -- in which individual countries air their human rights concerns to Chinese officials behind closed doors -- have led to little in the way of reform. Until recently, it's been easy enough for Western governments to slough off these reports as anecdotal bumps on a longer road to reform.
But with the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the talks fast approaching, there are signs that the days of cordial conversation may be over -- at least on Canada's side. Shortly before Parliament rose for the summer, an all-party Commons subcommittee heard numerous witnesses variously condemn the talks as an unproductive, naive and convenient cover for further Chinese abuses. Liberal MPs have blocked release of the subcommittee's report, arguing it will poison relations between the two countries. But a copy obtained by Maclean's shows that the panel affirms in plain language what NGOs and Chinese dissidents have been saying all along. "The subcommittee concludes that the existing bilateral human rights dialogue with China has not met its objectives," it says. "Perhaps, then, it is time for a more fundamental rethinking of the purpose of government-to-government meetings and of their role in a broader Canadian policy of engaging China on human rights."
This prescription is unlikely to please Beijing. The report recommends suspending the dialogue unless the Chinese agree to wholesale reforms -- opening the meetings to NGOs, establishing yardsticks for success; setting down a system of evaluating progress. But the real weight of the report may lie in its domestic implications. If, as expected, the Harper government adopts the recommendations as policy, it will cap a remarkable role reversal between Canada's leading parties when it comes to human rights. For years, the Liberals had been the party most closely associated with the issue, a legacy left over from the days of Pierre Trudeau and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Now the Tories are feasting on the issue of human rights, leaving the Grits in the absurd position of urging restraint to avoid offending the offenders. So what changed?
For starters, the Liberals did. Through the mid-1990s, the governments of Jean Chrétien had signed onto a series of resolutions at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemning China's rights record. But by 1997 -- due in part to vigorous lobbying on the part of the Chinese -- this multilateral shaming was starting to lose support. That year, to the dismay of NGOs, Canada followed the lead of other Western countries and switched course, agreeing to take their complaints against China behind closed doors in government-to-government discussions. It was left to foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, one of the Liberals' most respected civil libertarians, to justify what many activists regarded as a sop to big companies hoping to trade with an emerging economic colossus. "We concluded that Canada could have a greater influence on the state of human rights in China," Axworthy said at the time, "by pursuing and intensifying our promising bilateral measures."