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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Talking to a Great Wall - MacLeans interviews Chen Yonglin

Canada's human rights dialogue with China has yielded nothing

CHARLIE GILLIS | July 9, 2007 |

Maclean's - Exactly when it became impossible for Ottawa and other Western governments to pretend their bilateral talks with China on human rights were anything more than a charade is difficult to pinpoint. But a good case can be made for June 4, 2005, the day a soft-spoken diplomat from the Chinese consulate general in Sydney hid away his wife and daughter, eluded Beijing's ever-vigilant minders and threw himself at the mercy of the government of Australia.

Chen Yonglin's defection from China was a moment of triumph -- not to mention high atmospherics -- for pro-democracy partisans living outside the country. That afternoon in Sydney, the bookish 37-year-old took the stage at a rally commemorating the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre, and renounced his allegiance to a government that had provided him an enviable living. For too long, he told the rapturous crowd in Martin Place, Beijing has ruled its people at the end of a gun.

Neither Australia nor Canada nor 10 other democracies trying to make nice with China were inclined to celebrate, though. In the ensuing days, this affable, mid-ranking official produced a series of documents and anecdotes illuminating the two-faced nature of Chinese diplomacy over the past eight years, and by extension, the embarrassing depth of Western credulity. Even as Canberra, Washington, Ottawa and London were earnestly sending officials to closed-door meetings on human rights that began in 1997, Chen and his colleagues were stepping up spying and harassment activities against expatriates belonging to Falun Gong, the free-Tibet movement and pro-democracy groups. The idea, Chen told Maclean's in a recent interview, was to make life miserable for the dissidents' relatives back home. As for the bilateral dialogue: "We all knew it was meaningless. Everyone at the consulate general knew the talks were just a way to avoid international criticism. The notion that China would play a constructive role in international affairs was very deceptive."

Chen isn't the first to suggest China has spent the last decade playing Western governments for fools. His revelations count among a series from academics, journalists and other Chinese asylum-seekers indicating the so-called bilateral dialogues -- in which individual countries air their human rights concerns to Chinese officials behind closed doors -- have led to little in the way of reform. Until recently, it's been easy enough for Western governments to slough off these reports as anecdotal bumps on a longer road to reform.

But with the 10th anniversary of the beginning of the talks fast approaching, there are signs that the days of cordial conversation may be over -- at least on Canada's side. Shortly before Parliament rose for the summer, an all-party Commons subcommittee heard numerous witnesses variously condemn the talks as an unproductive, naive and convenient cover for further Chinese abuses. Liberal MPs have blocked release of the subcommittee's report, arguing it will poison relations between the two countries. But a copy obtained by Maclean's shows that the panel affirms in plain language what NGOs and Chinese dissidents have been saying all along. "The subcommittee concludes that the existing bilateral human rights dialogue with China has not met its objectives," it says. "Perhaps, then, it is time for a more fundamental rethinking of the purpose of government-to-government meetings and of their role in a broader Canadian policy of engaging China on human rights."

This prescription is unlikely to please Beijing. The report recommends suspending the dialogue unless the Chinese agree to wholesale reforms -- opening the meetings to NGOs, establishing yardsticks for success; setting down a system of evaluating progress. But the real weight of the report may lie in its domestic implications. If, as expected, the Harper government adopts the recommendations as policy, it will cap a remarkable role reversal between Canada's leading parties when it comes to human rights. For years, the Liberals had been the party most closely associated with the issue, a legacy left over from the days of Pierre Trudeau and the introduction of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Now the Tories are feasting on the issue of human rights, leaving the Grits in the absurd position of urging restraint to avoid offending the offenders. So what changed?

For starters, the Liberals did. Through the mid-1990s, the governments of Jean Chr├ętien had signed onto a series of resolutions at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights condemning China's rights record. But by 1997 -- due in part to vigorous lobbying on the part of the Chinese -- this multilateral shaming was starting to lose support. That year, to the dismay of NGOs, Canada followed the lead of other Western countries and switched course, agreeing to take their complaints against China behind closed doors in government-to-government discussions. It was left to foreign minister Lloyd Axworthy, one of the Liberals' most respected civil libertarians, to justify what many activists regarded as a sop to big companies hoping to trade with an emerging economic colossus. "We concluded that Canada could have a greater influence on the state of human rights in China," Axworthy said at the time, "by pursuing and intensifying our promising bilateral measures."

His faintly voiced hope never came to pass, however, and neither did the business community's dreams of economic nirvana. After the first couple of years of bilateral meetings, Canadian officials attending the sessions found themselves across the table from progressively more junior officials who lacked a mandate for domestic reform. "It became a bit of a joke, really," said one former diplomat who attended two of the meetings. "They would listen, but you had no sense that anything was going to change." Canadian products, meanwhile, actually shrank as a proportion of Chinese imports during this period, while Beijing continued its rights abuses. Each year, Amnesty International and other NGOs cited the Communist government for overuse of the death penalty, persecution of religious minorities or smothering free expression. "I think time has told the story," says Carole Samdup, coordinator of rights programs with the Montreal-based group Rights & Democracy. "I'd say we have less influence on China than we did in the past."

While all this was going on, Canada's political right was getting itself and its platform together -- including a newly minted China policy. As recently as 1999, then-Reform party leader Preston Manning had dismissed the plight of Tibetans as an "internal Chinese matter," preferring to focus on trade when asked about relations with Beijing. But some within Reform wanted a tougher stance. And with the merger of the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives in October 2003, they got their way. After that, said one insider who asked not to be named because he was speaking without authorization from the party, senior Tories began to speak of a "principled" policy on human rights. "It's a fairly recent development," the official said. "There are differences of opinion within the party, but it's more a question of emphasis. The issues of trade and human rights aren't always in tension, but there is that dynamic."

The rights hawks, as such, are mainly led by Jason Kenney, the secretary of state for multiculturalism, whose views on China were influenced by pro-democracy activists he met in school and university. Kenney declined to comment this week, saying it would be inappropriate given his position as chair of the human rights subcommittee. But he made his convictions clear back in January 2005 when, as part of a trade mission to Beijing, he paid a visit to the family of Zhao Ziyang -- a deceased Communist party head who was purged for sympathizing with the pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square. Then-prime minister Paul Martin denounced Kenney's gesture as reckless showboating, but the MP was unfazed. He later said he'd gotten permission for the visit from Tory leader Stephen Harper, who as Prime Minister would put human rights in China at the centre of his foreign policy platform.

Wherever the new ideas originated, the Conservatives quickly put them to work. Four months after being elected with a minority, the new government accused China of industrial espionage, citing its development of the Redberry, an equivalent to the BlackBerry sold by Waterloo, Ont.-based Research in Motion. Then, last fall, Harper took on the case of Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur-Canadian Muslim who was arrested during a family visit to Uzbekistan and deported to China to face dubious charges of terrorism. The Chinese had been holding Celil for more than a year without consular access, refusing to recognize his Canadian passport even after the Prime Minister got involved. In April, following a closed trial, a Chinese court in Beijing sentenced Celil to life in prison.

Harper seemed to take the case personally, raising it with Chinese President Hu Jintao during an economic conference in Vietnam in November and tartly telling reporters: "I don't think Canadians want us to sell out to the almighty dollar." For that, he's won laurels from human rights NGOs, and from Chinese expatriate groups who have previously identified themselves as Liberals. "I've been very impressed," says Sheng Xue, Canadian chair of the Federation for a Democratic China. "I think a lot of Chinese have identified themselves as Liberals just because of the meaning of the word -- freedom meant so much to us. But Liberal policy on rights over the past 13 years was confusing. For some of the Conservatives, I think freedom is truly their ideal."

How tightly a government can cling to ideals, though, is another question. In recent months, there has been pressure from the Bay Street side of the Conservative party to soften its rhetoric -- or at least create a two-track message, in which trade and human rights enjoy equal emphasis. Earlier this week, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced plans for a trip to China to discuss trade issues, while Lu Shumin, China's ambassador to Canada, told reporters in Ottawa recently that China is eager to resume the bilateral dialogue "when Canada is ready." Shumin didn't say whether Beijing would consider overhauling the process, and requests to the Chinese embassy for an interview were not returned. But at a time when fully 25 per cent of Canadians consider China the most important country to their interests, refusing to resume talks could easily be cast as stubborn obstructionism.

If the rights advocates within the party have any advantage, it's China's astounding ability to generate toxic publicity. Earlier this month, Charles Burton, a Brock University professor who compiled a report for the Commons subcommittee, stunned observers by reporting that Chinese foreign affairs officials sought "goodwill" payments from Canada in exchange for discussing particularly sensitive human rights topics. During interviews conducted by Burton in 2005, the diplomats suggested a $60,000 donation for impoverished counties in Yunnan, he said in his report; alternatively, Ottawa could provide funding for Chinese diplomats to obtain graduate degrees at Canadian universities.

That revelation came just as Chen Yonglin, the defector, began a nine-day tour through Canada, during which he revealed documents he says show that this country's leading Chinese Canadian lobby group, the National Congress of Chinese Canadians, was essentially an arm of the Chinese embassy. Chen said the congress counts among numerous organizations created in countries that responded to the Tiananmen massacre by freezing diplomatic relations with China. They were conceived, he said, as an alternate means of parlaying Beijing's message to foreign governments, but have since morphed into advocacy groups for the Communist regime. The NCCC has strenuously denied the claim, accusing Chen of "making untruths, creating hatred and damaging the peace of Canada's Chinese community."

Whether you believe the congress's protestations or not, Chen's is one more allegation to buoy the Sino-skeptics -- Tories and non-Tories who would be happy to see the dialogues consigned to permanent limbo. For years Canadian decision-makers have asked themselves whether they could afford to keep scolding a country whose economy already dwarfs our own. With little in the way of evidence to suggest China plans to use its newfound economic clout responsibly -- and the days of Beijing answering to anyone quickly dwindling -- the better question may be whether we can afford not to.

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