Friday, August 24, 2007

Shadow boxing with an Olympic giant

Khaleej Times Online - 19 August 2007

CHINA’S 12-month countdown to the Beijing Olympics did not get off to a good start, at least not in Canada. Canadians rappelled down the Great Wall of China in sympathy with Tibetans, lent tacit support to Taiwan’s bid for a voice at the World Health Organisation (WHO) and called for government intervention in promoting democracy in the world’s most populous nation.

To top it all, a former Canadian junior cabinet minister and ardent human rights campaigner, David Kilgour, is spearheading a global human rights torch relay to boycott the summer games a few weeks after authoring a report that charged the Beijing government with being complicit in the harvesting of organs from members of a particular sect (the Falun Gong) and selling them to foreign tourists. Two years ago, Mr Kilgour had Sudan in his cross-hairs, daring the then Paul Martin government into doing more for refugees fleeing the Darfur region in return for his support in a close parliamentary vote.

The call for a boycott has been endorsed by a coalition in Washington called the Doctors Against Forced Organ Harvesting. “The call for boycott of the Olympics addresses the Communist government in Beijing not the Chinese people,” a spokesman, Torsten Trey said in a letter published in the Ottawa Citizen. A few US lawmakers have also got in on the act.

The Chinese mission in Ottawa has reacted with predictable angst to the call for a boycott, on the lines of a similar western shunning of the 1980 Moscow Olympics. An embassy spokesman saw it as an attempt to “politicise” the games, adding for good measure that, “To exploit the chance of the Beijing Olympic Games to engage in anti-China activity is not only shameful but also doomed to fail.”

The disdain for China extends from senior members of the Harper government to ordinary citizens who pen letters to the editor. Recent revelations about Chinese toy exports being tainted with lead and farm produce being unsafe have fed into a diplomatic chill that has beset relations since the Conservatives came to power in January last year. Prime Minister Stephen Harper famously remarked about China that “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values. They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

Most Canadians expect China to be on its best behaviour in the run up to Beijing. It is perhaps the only explanation for the speedy way in which the Chinese government kicked out – rather than incarcerated – three Canadians who had caused it enormous embarrassment on the day it launched its countdown spectacle. Rather than being jailed and tried under China’s stringent laws governing public behaviour, Sam Price, Melanie Raoul and Lhadon Tethong, were expeditiously kicked out of the country and put on Canada-bound planes.

The three had helped put up a huge pro-Tibet banner on the Great Wall of China, recording the event and then posting it live on popular websites like YouTube. Ms. Raoul said on her return, “The banner was on the wall for nearly two hours. It was a fantastic moment. I’m completely thrilled the way we got the message out there.” They were greeted in Vancouver and Toronto as homecoming heroes when their commercial airliners landed in Canada.

In what has been described by commentators as “another burr under [Canada’s] relationship with China,” Health Minister Tony Clement has lent this country’s support for Taiwan taking part in technical meetings of the WHO. This has been interpreted as tacit support for Taiwan’s bid to gain observer status at the World Health Authority, which governs the WHO.

Taiwan’s resident representative in Canada was undoubtedly delighted, saying, “This is a very positive sign. … We have been frustrated since 1971, when we lost UN membership, and we have been deprived of participation in all the UN related agencies … and a major country like Canada says something like this, that carries some weight,” David Ta-Wei Lee said. The Chinese response was equal and opposite: “It is hoped Canada will be able to see through such political motives on the part of the Taiwan authorities.”

Tibet and WHO membership, though, are modest goals compared to another Canadian desire. Despite the bad rap that democratisation has gained in the wake of the American disaster in Iraq, Canadian parliamentarians are all for spreading the message of liberty and freedom to the Forbidden City and beyond. In a bipartisan report released last July, the Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Development suggested that Canada should be joining the US, Britain and Norway as a global promoter of democratic institutions.

“Canada should carefully consider how it might support democratic transition in China, the stirrings of which are already apparent,” the parliamentary committee said. Citing this report, Bruce Gilley, author of China’s Democratic Future: How it will Happen and Where it will Lead, said, “Putting China at the top of a wider agenda of Canadian-style democracy promotion would be a great way to start making amends for 40 years of unprincipled dealings with Beijing.”

However, there are pragmatic voices even within Conservative ranks that caution against ‘megaphone democratisation.’ They also point out that only those who are unsullied can preach from high ground. John Reynolds, who is widely credited with strategising the gains the party made in the 2006 campaign and who has just returned from a business trip to Beijing, senses a lot of shadow boxing and hectoring, to no avail. “It’s the up-and-coming superpower of the world. Is it perfect? No, but is Canada perfect or is the US perfect?”

George Abraham is a journalist based in Ottawa, Canada
OLYMPIC WATCH: Human Rights in China and Beijing 2008

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