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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Surmounting the Great Wall: Building Human Rights in China

Surmounting the Great Wall: Building Human Rights in China
by Hon. David Kilgour, M.P.
Vancouver SFU Harbour Centre

In Search for Justice Conference: 17 July 2005 - In 2003, the administration of President Hu Jintao took office in Beijing; for a brief period, there was real hope. New regulations were created to prevent torture in police custody. The government announced its intention of reforming the system of arbitrary detention, “re-education through labour.” A constitutional amendment even declared that the state “respects and protects human rights.” The domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic was addressed with a law to strengthen AIDS prevention and stop discrimination against those infected.

Without the institutional, rule of law and other reforms needed to ensure that legislative measures have substance in practice, however, nothing can really change in China or anywhere. Human rights abuses now continue unabated. Show trials, arbitrary detention, political crackdowns on specific groups, media and information controls, more death sentences than the rest of the world combined, even forcible evictions and destruction of housing in preparation for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing – all these continue to happen in China. International human rights NGOs face continued denial of access to the Middle Kingdom.


The use of imported technology for party control is also growing. The government understands very well the dual purpose possibilities of technology traded with the West; and western companies are often not so ignorant of this goal either. Microsoft’s Internet software sold to China, MSN Spaces, has censorship functions built into the program, which are justified by Microsoft as “satisfying the customer.” If someone in China types forbidden words, such as “freedom,” “democracy” or “human rights,” they are automatically deleted. Names of top government officials are also blocked, as are numerous websites, such as Amnesty International and other human rights and pro-democracy sites.

Ethan Gutmann noted at a recent rally in Chicago that a senior engineer at Nortel had assured him “they had developed a 100% packet capture system, specifically designed ‘to catch Falun Gong.’” Cisco has built technology for the Public Security Bureau, providing remote connections to provincial security databases for cross-checking all background information, including everything from family history to emails to movement tracing. This illustrates the extent to which the Chinese government is now willing to go, and the distance to which some Western companies are complicit in information control, censorship and the round-up of Chinese citizens for doing what is perfectly legal in most countries.

This collusion between Western companies, knowingly or not, and the political aims of the Chinese government appears to lack any sense of corporate social responsibility (CSR). No company which pursues CSR seriously should engage in trade and development with the military, police or security of any government that suppresses and abuses its people in these ways.


Some observers insist that strengthening economic ties and increased trade will over time encourage the Chinese government to ensure respect for human rights. They point to China’s nine per cent economic growth rate, with part of its population already benefiting from this growth. But how can reasonable observers believe that the rest of the Chinese people will benefit from an economic and human rights trickle-down effect? The policy of enlarging economic ties with China, a policy of engagement, operates under the assumption that marketization and democracy go hand in hand. China engaging in free trade with the rest of the world by itself will not lead to a transition to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.

If we look more closely at contemporary Chinese history, we see that exactly the opposite has been happening. Beijing has of late become increasingly repressive of its own population. The government still relies on prison labor, lacks independent trade unions, and suffers under the deeply engrained corruption of the non-elected Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in office since 1949. The gap between rich and poor in China has actually grown since the rural-led revolution which brought the CCP to power. Most of those outside coastal cities have seen very little of the economic growth benefits. About 900 million nationals in China are subsistence farmers, who now make about 63 cents per day; another 200 or so million are unemployed.

Spy Networks

In recent weeks, it has emerged yet again that there are Chinese spies active in Canada. A security official who defected from China, Guangsheng Han, said that Beijing cultivates informants across Canada to gather economic intelligence. In June, a former Chinese police officer, Hao Fengjun, defected in Australia with documents claiming that China has a network of more than 1,000 spies. These assertions have also emerged in the recent defection of yet another Chinese diplomat, Chen Yonglin, who was recently granted asylum in Australia, as well as from Michel Juneau-Katsuya, the former chief of the CSIS Asia Pacific Desk of the Requirements, Analysis and Production Branch (RAP).

This news should surprise no one. “Operation Sidewinder”, a joint study by the RCMP and CSIS, concluded several years ago there were then about 3,500 Chinese agents operating across North America. There have been reports of Chinese tourists and business people spying on industrial sites and firms, for instance high-tech companies. An equally unacceptable development is the indicated interference by Chinese officials with the activities of the peaceful and perfectly legal Falun Gong members at various points across Canada.

The world can learn much from the 5,000 year-old Chinese civilization; in turn the benefits freedom of religion can bring for the long term social well-being of any nation is an area Chinese policy makers should study. For example, research indicates that Canadians who attend weekly religious services lead happier, less stressful lives than others. Many Chinese immigrants who arrive in Canada become active members of religious organizations soon after they arrive. For instance, a Chinese Baptist church in Scarborough (Toronto) has a membership of about 14,000 and an annual budget of $2.5 million. The numerous religious communities we have in this country contribute much to the well-being of Canadians generally. Allowing for freedom of religion and the expression of one’s beliefs peacefully encourages people to become active members of communities. This is especially important in the political and religious climate across the world at the beginning of the 21st century.

The government claims to ensure religious freedom and freedom of expression as guaranteed by Article 36 of the PRC Constitution. Many faith communities in fact continue to suffer discrimination. The persecution of Muslims has been stepped up under the claim that the government is trying to keep Islamic fundamentalists from gaining a foothold in China. No one under 18 is allowed to practise any religion. Those who wish to attend Catholic churches must attend state-sanctioned churches, the bishop of which pledges loyalty to Beijing alone. The campaign against the Falun Gong has spilled over into persecution of unregistered Catholic churches, temples and mosques. In one southeastern province alone, in November of 2000, authorities confiscated or destroyed up to 3,000 unregistered church buildings and Buddhist shrines. Religious persecution is widespread. A Google search on persecution of Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Uyghurs or the Falun Gong in China will turn up tens of thousands of links.

There are credible reports that a campaign is currently underway of persecution of members of unregistered Christian house churches across China. The official suppression of religion makes use of welfare reduction, arbitrary fines and imprisonment, the latter of which can lead to intensive interrogation and physical abuse. Such methods are used against those who are found to be “believing in a religion,” “engaging in an illegal religious gathering,” or even “attending a religious black hole,” Try to purchase a Bible or Koran in any book store across China.

Why repression of religion? There is a felt need by the leadership in Beijing for loyalty to the party and state alone; religious activity is perceived as a threat to the power and authority of the CCP. This is especially true as a result of the relationship between pro-democracy movements and underground churches, as well as possible influences from elsewhere making their way into China through faith communities. Religions which are not state-sanctioned are often portrayed as part of separatist movements – such as Buddhists in Tibet, or Muslim Uyghurs in Xinjiang. This is despite the fact that Buddhism and Islam are state-sanctioned religions in China.

The government has justified repression of the Uyghur community through the global ‘war on terror.’ No distinction is made by government authorities between passive resistance and acts of violence; this policy has resulted in counter-terrorist measures. Peaceful Uyghurs have been charged with ‘separatist’ or ‘terrorist’ offences. Some have been sentenced to death for their so-called crimes, mosques have been closed, traditional holidays can no longer be observed, and Uyghur education, language and freedom of expression are severely controlled.

Any group with the ability to mobilize large numbers of people, based on a decentralized network, especially if they are seen to have some sort of moral authority over the Chinese government, poses a threat to the CCP’s power, authority and legitimacy. The most visible of these communities is the Falun Gong.

Zhao Ziyang

Not all high-ranking officials in the CCP are fearful of pro-democracy movements. This past January, Zhao Ziyang, the much-admired former general secretary of the CCP, died. The official media across China reported only briefly on his death, and no mention was made of his titles. As you know, Zhao had criticized the party’s handling of the Tiananmen Square protests, which called for an end to corruption and a defense of the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. His opposition to the decision of fellow party leaders to crush the demonstration brutally and declare martial law sealed his fate. He was stripped of all his positions. His name and image were banned
from state media. He was placed under house arrest until the end of his life. A voice of reason, compassion and peace had been silenced.

Falun Gong

Truthfulness, compassion and tolerance are three words that mean so much to so many, and so little to others. So little, in fact, that the CCP has banned followers of the group which practises the three as an “evil cult” threatening state security.

Falun Gong is a peaceful movement founded in China in the early 1990s in an attempt to introduce spirituality, meditation and exercise in a repressive political environment. The movement continued to grow; in 1999, ten thousand followers held a day-long vigil to appeal for the release of 45 Falun Gong members arbitrarily arrested in Tianjin. High-ranking officials in the CCP, as well as the police and military, joined the vigil.

The CCP, however, saw the Falun Gong as a major threat. Their numbers were expanding, they were organized, and they arguably threatened the authority of party members. In November of 1999, the government passed a law to suppress heterodox religion. This has reportedly led to somewhere between 200,000 and one million Falun Gong members being sent to labor camps and about 500 being imprisoned. Many who were detained received neither charges nor trials; they were assigned to “Re-education through Labor,” where risk of torture or physical abuse was high. According to overseas Falun Gong sources, since 1999 almost three thousand have died while in detention due to physical abuse and torture. It is also difficult to determine exact numbers because the deaths of Falun Gong members while in custody are labeled as suicides.

The widespread use of the death sentence by authorities is also very troubling. Amnesty International estimates that in 2004 alone, at least 3,400 people were executed, and at least 6,000 were sentenced to death. Although the government keeps official records of state executions secret, according to Amnesty International, one senior member of the National People’s Congress stated that China executes about 10,000 people a year. Executions are common even for non-violent crimes such as tax fraud, although the punishment thankfully does not yet appear to have been used against Falun Gong members.

Guo Guoting

The prominent Shanghai lawyer Guo Guoting’s detention for questioning and subsequent house arrest was in part a result of his involvement in a case concerning a Falun Gong practitioner. Aside from being detained, interrogated and placed under house arrest, he also lost his freedom to practise law defending justice and human rights. We are all delighted that he is now an immigrant in Canada and will today received the “Search For Justice” award at this conference.

Not only are Falun Gong practitioners denied the freedom of expression, a right of all Chinese citizens according to the PRC Constitution; they are denied due process and adequate legal representation, rights guaranteed in any jurisdiction enjoying the rule of law.

Such is the government’s fear and loathing of Falun Gong that they will even harass its practitioners in other countries, including Canada! There have been numerous complaints that Chinese diplomats are harassing, intimidating and spying on Falun Gong members in Canada. Members of Falun Gong in Canada have claimed that Chinese diplomats here have been actively monitoring their activities. The documents revealed by Hao Fengjun confirm this behavior. The PRC embassy and consulates in Canada have reportedly also been involved in the distribution of anti-Falun Gong propaganda, something that might well contravene the hate provisions of our Criminal Code.

What to Do?

Undoubtedly China is assuming a position of prominence in the world and this will continue. As its influence grows, China must be cognizant of the responsibility that comes with leadership. Why not demonstrate leadership in the areas of governance and human rights to be a respected member of the global community? As China’s markets and regions open, following its accession to the WTO, it will face new pressures. Taken in the context of “Jie Gui,” – making connections - these pressures will have a less destabilizing effect if China were to connect better to internationally accepted values and norms.

What can Canada do? Such abuses cannot be accepted by the international community. China is a member of the WTO; it continues to hold a veto in the United Nations Security Council. It enjoys
healthy trade surpluses with all Western countries. China’s trade surplus with Canada alone last year was more than $17 billion.

Can it really be said that we Canadians have human rights concerns in our foreign policy objectives in the case of China? At the very least, we must cease the hollow rhetoric that China is presently moving forward in the protection and promotion of human rights. An Amnesty International Canada spokesperson has said just the opposite. We must also be honest, and admit that engaging in business relations with China will not necessarily be a catalyst for human rights. But isolationism is not an answer either. We cannot let our foreign policy with China be based on commercial interests alone. Although our capacity for bringing about greater respect for human rights in China is limited, our national governments of any party stripe must at least indicate that the export of rights violations to Canada will not be tolerated, whether in the form of intimidation, threats, espionage or attempted censorship.


Let me close on a hopeful note: it has been my pleasure to know many men and women of origin in China from China itself to Gabon, West Africa, and mostly of course across Canada itself. They are among the hardest working, best educated and most family-oriented ethno cultural communities on earth. Human dignity is as important to them, whether in China, Gabon or Canada, as to any other community in East Asia or anywhere else in the world.

The continued rise of one of the oldest civilizations, the most populous nation (closely followed by India), certainly the most dynamic economy, and probably sometime in this century the most important country, cannot succeed without respect for the rule of law, government of, by and for the people, human rights, freedom of speech and religion. All of us who are friends of the Chinese people and China hope that the present and next generation of leadership there will accept these concepts.

Thank you.

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