Playing footsie with Beijing

Are the Tories sacrificing human rights for business opportunities?

Playing footsie with Beijing

Andy Wong/AP

Birthday greetings are nice, but when you’re the governing party of a Western country that has styled itself as a defender of human rights, you might think twice about firing off happy returns to the authoritarian rulers of 1.3 billion people. The message is liable to get used in ways you never intended.

That’s what happened a couple of weeks back with a congratulatory letter the federal Conservatives sent the Communist Party of China, marking the organization’s 90th anniversary. State news agencies in China seized on the note, which was signed by Tory party president John Walsh and looked ahead optimistically to “future relations between the two parties,” as proof that political movements around the world are celebrating the birth of Chinese Communism.

Conservative party officials did not return calls for comment, but if they thought the gesture might slide by unnoticed, they were wrong. Dermod Travis, executive director of the Canada Tibet Committee (CTC), demanded that the party retract “the flattering, backslapping words,” and wondered aloud why the idea failed to set off alarms at Conservative headquarters. “Someone should be wise enough to appreciate that the [Communist] regime only maintains power through military oppression,” he said in a statement. “It doesn’t deserve congratulations, but rebuke.”

The CTC wasn’t the only organization worried by the Tories’ growing chumminess toward China’s rulers. As John Baird embarked this week on his first trip to the country as Canada’s foreign minister, human rights advocates say the government’s once-strong line against Beijing has been blurred in recent years by more solicitous overtures aimed at improving trade. Instead of speaking out against China’s recent crackdown on dissenters, they note, Baird sought during the run-up to his four-day visit to reassure business leaders who believe Canada has paid a price in the past for criticizing China. “My government gets it,” Baird told a Bay Street audience. “As Canada’s new minister of foreign affairs, I get it.”

Baird insisted he will raise the issue of human rights with his Chinese counterparts behind closed doors. Still, his words mark a retreat from the rigid stance epitomized by Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s 2006 remark about not sacrificing values to “the almighty dollar” of Chinese trade. In those days, the government won plaudits from rights organizations and security hawks, calling out Beijing on everything from product safety to industrial espionage. But the era of tough talk has ended. “There’s been a huge softening of approach, and I think Mr. Baird’s trip is the latest manifestation of it,” says Cheuk Kwan, head of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China. “There’s a certain amount of kowtowing that may be necessary when you’re dealing with the world’s second-largest economy. I think our government could be much stronger.”

Kwan and representatives of 12 other human rights organizations have made that case in a letter to Baird, calling for a comprehensive China relations strategy that puts human rights front and centre. The need for assertiveness, they say, has been underscored by the clampdown since 2009 that has seen hundreds of bloggers, artists, human rights lawyers and property rights activists vanish into China’s prison system. “We need to get past the idea that this is the responsibility of one or two well-meaning, lonely souls in a corner of Foreign Affairs,” says Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International in Canada. “There should not be a moment in our engagement with China where we aren’t considering the potential to advance a positive human rights agenda.”

As for the potential cost of angering an economic behemoth, the coalition believes China’s bark is worse than its financial bite. In the two years following Harper’s “almighty dollar” remark (a time, they note, when he further angered Beijing by receiving the Dalai Lama in Ottawa), annual exports to China rose 22 per cent, to $9.5 billion, while total trade between the two countries grew by 25 per cent.

Yet it’s no more clear that publicly scolding Beijing will do anything more than worsen the situation for persecuted individuals. The recent crackdown, after all, has taken place since Canada and other countries abandoned their program of closed-door “bilateral dialogues” with China on human rights, in favour of speaking their minds in forums of their choosing. Yet even as leaders in Britain, Canada, Germany and the U.S. spoke out against the imprisonment of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo and the renowned artist Ai Weiwei, authorities expanded their security sweeps, placing spouses, friends and relatives of the dissenters under house arrest.

Considering this history, Canadians shouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the value of quiet engagement, says Gordon Houlden, who in his 22 years as a Canadian diplomat in China did his share of backroom cajoling. Over the years, it has produced concrete improvements at what he calls the “coal face” of government operations, such as the training of prison guards in humane handling procedures for inmates. More importantly, he says, steady pressure strengthens the hands of reformers working within the existing power structure. “I’m convinced there are elements within the leadership of the Communist party that genuinely wish to have a more open society,” says Houlden, who now heads up the University of Alberta’s China Institute. “Their efforts—liberal elements versus conservative—go on as we speak.”

By all indications, this sort of logic appeals to senior Conservatives, who believe they can make nice with Beijing while keeping political freedom near the centre of the Tory brand. In a speech last month, shortly after winning his first majority government, Harper sounded as tough as ever, inveighing against “moral ambiguity” toward new players on the global stage. But he didn’t single out China, and his greatest diplomatic achievement to date may be his 2009 visit to Beijing, where he took a public chiding from Premier Wen Jiabao, yet gained Canada “favoured-destination” status from China’s travel authorities, clearing the way for an estimated $100 million per year in tourism.

Same goes for Baird, who last week told a Chinese-language reporter that the government stands by its principles on human rights. Yet on his publicly released agenda for the trip, the phrase “human rights” lay tucked into a list of governance issues to be raised in private meetings with his ministerial counterparts. “That shows some sympathy with the Chinese interpretation of how the relationship should work,” says Charles Burton, a Brock University political scientist who follows Canada-Chinese relations. “Different audiences get a different nuance of message.”

Not what you’d call good news for long-time activists, who put little stock in Western leaders’ brave promises to talk tough when the microphones are off. “As far as we’re concerned, human rights should be discussed both out in the open and behind closed doors,” says Amnesty’s Neve. But for now, they are reserving judgment, hoping Baird might gain some clear commitment to improve political, religious or personal liberties at a time when Beijing least wants to offer it. Unlike the choreographed merriment surrounding the Communist party’s 90th, that would be something worth celebrating.


Playing footsie with Beijing

  1. Reality bites.

  2. Are the Tories sacrificing human rights for business opportunities?

    Somewhat like Chretien’s yearly junkets complete with provincial politicians, business friends and photographers?

    • And now that Harper knows why Chretien did it, his entire holier-than-thou routine has died. LOL

      • And now that Harper knows why Chretien did it,  his entire holier-than-thou routine has died.  LOL

  3. The sad part is the parochialism associated with the process of choosing how to treat China. Canada makes its decisions based on its own interests, as any country should, but with apparently limited interest in the larger situation. We act indifferent to the question of how to manage a rising China so that it moves, through its domestic and international actions, toward membership in the increasingly (in fits and starts) peaceful, liberal, rules-based international order. Will it overthrow that order? Or change it? Or blend in? Canada has vague hopes that things will work out, but no awareness of what we can do to affect the situation. Canada, and increasingly European states, use their relative individual weakness as an excuse to keep their heads down and focus on their own affairs. This leaves the US to create pressures and take actions, with some successes and some failures, that the rest of us react to with applause or criticism. Who needs a foreign policy?

  4. Amazing. Not long ago the lefties were berating the Conservatives for not doing enough business with China. Missing a huge opportunity, etc. etc. Now that they’re doing it, they use the human rights card to discredit the government. I guess complaining is the objective, not accomplishing something.

    • I believe the ‘left’  is pointing out the hypocrisy. LOL

  5. “Are the Tories sacrificing human rights for business opportunities?”


  6. Funny, no one in the media whined or complained when it was the Liberals chuming up with China. I wonder why?

    • Because of the hypocrisy. Pay attention.

      • Well said Emily. And condescending too! What a smart girl you are….but my point still stands. You and the the liberal left were silent when uncle Jean was courting the Chinese, remember? “Team Canada”? Oh, sorry, that wasn’t conservative. A good study in hypocrisy, n’est pas?

        • Well actually you don’t have a point.

          It’s a good thing to befriend and trade with China….something everyone has told Harper.  But no,  he was all snotty about it, and decided to lecture and insult them.

          Harper has suddenly flip-flopped…reality bites.  Which is why everyone is snickering about it.

    • Are you truly that ignorant, or just a liar?

      Do the words “pepper, I put it on my plate” bring any sort of memory back?

      I wish just once you bloody liars would at least put the effort in to not be obvious idiots.

  7. The Media Party is a real piece of work.

    When Harper brought up the human rights record of the Chinese, the media in Canada went ballistic..
    “We were going to pay, economically.”
    “China was lost to us diplomatically.”
    ” Relations between China and Canada were lost forever”
    All these headlines were screaming at the Harper government for speaking about human rights with China.

    Now Baird talks about trade and ignores human rights with the Chinese, and the Media Party has done a complete about face, and is screaming at the Harper government about NOT speaking to China about their human rights.

    The Media Party is acting like the Liberal Party they support….speaking out of both sides of their mouth.


    • It’s not the media that’s done the about-face

      It pays to read threads before you post.

      • Aren’t you kinda both right? 

        The Tories have flip-flopped from pressing human rights issues publicly and taking a hard line with China to, well, what’s described above, and the media, who were chiding them for focusing too much on human rights to the detriment of trade and good relations are now chiding them for focusing too much on trade and good relations to the determent of human rights.  The difference is, the media is SUPPOSED to be skeptical of government.  They’re SUPPOSED to ask “But what about…”.  Whether or not the government should display more consistency is a matter for debate.

        • I don’t see them as chiding the govt on human rights….I see them as chiding the govt as having taken so long to climb down off the high horse of superiority….both to the Chinese and the Libs.

    • I think increased trade could act possibly as a democratizing influence. Also, It seems real threats in today’s world come from isolated societies not integrated societies. Not to mention, that it would be extremely difficult to isolate the 2nd largest economy in the world.

  8.  Let us focus for a
    minute on the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It is the most brutal
    regime that has ever existed on the planet. The CCP has systematically
    murdered 80 million of its own people and is now in the process of
    attempting the genocide of tens of millions of innocent Falun Gong
    practitioners. The CCP uses torture, slave camps, child labour, organ
    and who knows what else to hang on to its evil power.
     What is Mr.
    Harper’s problem? Does he not know that he is supposed to represent all
    the good people of Canada. Not just the greedy corporations
    that he is going there to represent. Shame on him. Shame on the CCP.
     There is an expression that reads, what goes around comes around. The older version of this is , as you sow, so shall you reap.
    Harper continues to encourage business with such a brutal regime as
    the  CCP, I do not see how he can expect to bring anything but misery to
    the Canadian economy and the Canadian people.
     This is only my understanding.. Thank you.