National Post: Canada takes a tougher tone as it calls on Beijing to respect human rights
[September 29, 2007] by Peter Goodspeed
China’s leaders are dreaming of prosperity and good fortune by deciding to open the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing at 8:08 p.m. on Aug. 8. (The number eight is considered auspicious because it sounds similar to the Mandarin word for “wealth.”) But when the Olympic torch is lit in Beijing’s spectacular new National Stadium, known as the “bird’s nest” for its intricate steel beams, the world’s attention may be focused as much on China’s failures as its success.
For years, China’s leaders have dreamed of turning the Olympics into a carefully choreographed coming-out party to showcase its culture and achievements. They have spent decades planning and spending billions of dollars to give Beijing a massive makeover, tearing down entire neighbourhoods to build stadiums, roads and subways. But while the Olympics are a source of great national pride, they will also subject the country to greater outside scrutiny than ever before.
In the seven years since China won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics, critics have repeatedly raised concerns over its human rights record. Not since the 1936 Berlin Olympics has there been such a groundswell of protest, with growing demands for a Games boycott. Critics, inside China and out, have dismissed the Beijing Olympics as the “Genocide Games” because of China’s support of regimes in Sudan and Myanmar, or “the handcuff Olympics” for its suppression of dissent at home.
China is regularly castigated for oppressing its citizens. This includes limiting their freedom of expression, persecuting religions that refuse to submit to state control and prohibiting independent trade unions. Authorities rely on torture and capital punishment, along with censorship, restrictions on freedom of assembly and the crushing of all dissent. Some observers claim Beijing is using the “war on terror” to justify policies aimed at eradicating the “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism and religious extremism,” targeting the Uighurs, Turkic-speaking Muslims in Xinjiang, and Tibet’s Buddhists.
The new international focus on China comes just as Prime Minister Stephen Harper has adopted a policy of publicly challenging Beijing’s human rights record. After decades of mouthing platitudes about Canada’s “close historical, cultural and people-to-people links” with China, Ottawa has abandoned a nine-year-old policy of meeting once a year behind closed doors to discuss human rights concerns with Chinese diplomats. Instead, Mr. Harper has vowed to carry out a “principled policy on human rights” in which Canada will publicly denounce China’s failings. Since the Conservatives came to power, he has suspended the annual human rights discussions and voiced concern over Beijing’s human rights record in two brief and distinctly cool meetings with Hu Jintao, the Chinese President.
He has also criticized China’s treatment of Huseyin Celil, a Canadian Muslim and Uighur activist from Burlington, Ont., who was convicted and sentenced to life in prison for “separatist activities” in China after a 15-minute trial in which his court-appointed lawyer was not allowed to speak. Mr. Harper further infuriated China when it was reported he will meet the Dalai Lama when the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader visits Ottawa on Oct. 28. China regards the Dalai Lama as “a political exile who has long been engaged in activities aimed at splitting China under the camouflage of religion.”
Mr. Harper bluntly dismissed criticism of his new China policy, saying, “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.” But China responded, just as bluntly, by warning Ottawa not to meddle in its internal affairs. “For the first time since the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1970, we are back to a national debate about the fundamentals of the relationship [with China],” said Paul Evans, chairman of the Vancouver-based think-tank, the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “This is a break, a decisive break, with the way the relationship has been managed under six other prime ministers.”
Canada defends its approach to China as a natural adjunct to its traditional diplomacy. “As Canadians, we do carry our values and perspectives beyond Canada to the rest of the world,” David Emerson, the International Trade Minister, told a business conference in Beijing this year. “We talk candidly about democratic governance, about the importance of the rule of law and about corporate social responsibility,” he said. “Open discussion and engagement in these broader issues should not conflict with commercial interests.”
Human rights advocates have long insisted Canadian values should take precedence over Canadian commerce. They believe China, which is anxious to fuel its growing economy, will heed Ottawa’s demands. “The lead-up to the 2008 Olympics offer a time during which the Chinese government is likely to be more sensitive and concerned about its international image than it has been in the past,” Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, recently told a parliamentary subcommittee. Changes at the United Nations, with a new Human Rights Council replacing the Commission on Human Rights, will also open new opportunities to focus on China’s human rights record, he said.
In preparing for the Olympics, China seems to have drawn even more attention to its human rights record, through forced evictions of residents to make way for Olympic projects, abuse of migrant workers and police action to silence potential protesters. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch estimates 300,000 people have been relocated. China fears the Olympics may be disrupted by dissidents or threatened by terrorists. It has launched pre-emptive crackdowns, targeting anyone who supports independence or greater autonomy for Tibet, Xinjiang or Taiwan, as well as members of dissident groups like Falun Gong, a meditative religious sect that has staged mass protests in the past.
China has thrown up a massive security operation around the Olympics, using technology that combines closed-circuit video surveillance with voice and face recognition software and extensive monitoring of telephone and Internet communications. China already has what has been described as “the most extensive, technologically sophisticated, and broad-reaching system of Internet filtering in the world.” Officials routinely block access to Web sites on certain topics or when surfers type certain words. All Internet cafe keyboards are equipped with monitoring software.
Now in the run-up to Aug. 8, human rights defenders and government critics are being harassed, detained or placed under house arrest. “The Chinese government has shown little substantive progress in addressing long-standing human rights concerns,” Human Rights Watch reports. “Instead, apparently more worried about political stability, Beijing is tightening its grip on domestic human rights defenders, grassroots activists and media to choke off any possible expressions of dissent ahead of the Games.”
“The image of the Olympics continues to be tarnished by ongoing reports of the house arrest, torture or unfair trial of Chinese activists and the extension of systems for detention without trial in Beijing as part of the city’s ‘cleanup’ ahead of August, 2008,” warns Amnesty International.