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Thursday, July 08, 2010

Ignatieff's China blunder

Calgary Herald July 8, 2010 10:04 AM - Considering that not too many decades ago Calgary wouldn't even pick up the garbage in Chinatown, one cannot entirely criticize Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff for telling Chinese students this week that neither Canada nor China has "a flawless past or present" on human rights. Flawless past, no, but it's the "present" part that is troubling. Ignatieff's suggestion that Canada and China are present-day moral equals has rightly sent commentators into a tizzy.

Indeed, what was Ignatieff thinking when he went on to say that "We should move forward together, to learn from each other in matters of rights, justice, civil service reform, and corporate social responsibility." Corporate social responsibility? Justice? Rights? Numerous organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have documented the People's Republic of China's human rights abuses. The PRC allows freedom of speech in principle, unless it comes into conflict with what is deemed "the subversion of state power." The Internet is censored. Activists languish in jail without due process. Falun Gong practitioners and Christians are jailed and have their organs harvested for profit -- rendering religious belief in China a potential death sentence. Self-determination is not allowed for territories like Tibet considered under the jurisdiction of Beijing. In Canada, separatism is democratically wielded as a club to gain concessions from Ottawa and members of separatist parties are both members of Parliament and the legislature in Quebec City.

The People's Republic argues that human rights should include measures of health and economic prosperity. Here, too, Ignatieff acquiesced to his hosts, saying, "the prosperity that has lifted hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens out of absolute poverty has been one of the most significant advances in human rights for mankind ever." It is one thing to have the means to own a mobile phone computer, but quite another to freely express or exchange ideas on those devices. Rights and freedoms are ideals, not pieces of technological hardware.

In his speech to students at Tsinghua University, Ignatieff said he intended to tell Chinese leaders "about the progress that is still possible." And, in an interview, he reiterated that point. "I will raise lots of cases," he said. "The idea that I've come to China to make nice is not correct."

As a former director of the Carr Centre for Human Rights at Harvard University and someone who has made a career of studying human rights, we would hope that a man who aspires to be prime minister would, indeed, raise these matters. In a thinly-veiled criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Ignatieff said "megaphone diplomacy" -- loudly lecturing China -- doesn't work. That may be true, but neither does giving PRC propagandists fodder they can quote, especially when it emanates from mouth of a respected advocate of human rights.

Ignatieff quoted Deng Xiaoping, who led China out of the Cultural Revolution, as saying "Seek truth from the facts." The Liberal leader would be wise to do the same before equating China and Canada as modern-day equals on human rights.

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