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.