Stephen Harper’s third visit to China has been a success on many fronts, including the signing of commercial deals valued at up to $2.5 billion dollars, opening of four new trade offices, an increase in nuclear cooperation, expansion of a transit without visa program, and an agreement to open a Renminbi trading hub (Canada becoming the first in the Americas).
These announcements add to the list of items that Canada has been able to achieve with China since 2006, including:
• receiving Approved Destination Status in 2009;
• arrival of pandas in 2013;
• various agreements on agricultural research, transport, climate change, cultural cooperation;
• an overall increase in merchandise trade to $73B, making China our second largest trading partner; and
• the recent ratification of the Canada-China Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement.
However, various media outlets and pundits have given the impression that Prime Minister Harper and the Canadian government have been recently more muted on the human rights situation in China. Media often refer to Mr. Harper’s quote from 2006:
“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.”
A coalition of NGOs even wrote an open letter this month asking Mr. Harper to raise human rights issues during bilateral meetings.
In fact, since 2009, rather than Canada being less vocal on issues of human rights, it has arguably been more robust when it comes to China. They may not have received much press coverage, but some items that likely raised eyebrows in Beijing are below:
• Lead by Minister Jason Kenney, Canada has been a leader when it comes to showing support for the Dalai Lama and his causes, including taking in refugees from Arunachal Pradesh and hosting the World Parliamentarians Convention on Tibet. Prime Minister Harper met again with the Dalai Lama — on Parliament Hill — in 2012.
• Canada is one of the few countries to consistently raise the persecution of the Falun Gong, both at the United Nations and in other fora.
• On the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, foreign minister John Baird recently called for an open accounting for the people who were killed, detained, or missing.
• The Government of Canada gave its national human rights award in 2012 to Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen, a fierce critic of the Chinese communist party.
• For the first time, Canada publicly expressed concern about the sex ratio imbalance and called on China to amend its “One Child Policy” and ensure that “policies related to the family are based on consent”.
• Ministers have met with Rebiya Kadeer and the government has expressed concern multiple times about the situation facing Uyghur Muslims in China.
• Each year, despite Canada’s official “One China Policy”, multiple federal government ministers attend and speak at Taiwan’s “Double Ten Night” (Taiwan’s national day celebrations) in Ottawa, including (but not limited to) ministers Jason Kenney, John Duncan, Tony Clement, Julian Fantino, Chris Alexander, Kerri-Lynne Findlay, Vic Toews, Peter Kent, Bal Gosal, and Dianne Finley. In fact, the number of ministers in attendance has grown in recent years.
• Earlier this year, immigration minister Chris Alexander attended the funeral for Shanghai’s bishop, Joseph Fan Zhongliang, one of the leaders of the underground Catholic Church in China.
• Previously, Minister Baird addressed the plight of Christians in China in various speeches, including one before the UN General Assembly. In one address, Baird described the Chinese government’s mistreatment of religious minorities as “abhorrent acts” that “fly in the face of our core principles, our core values.”
• Just last year, in launching the Office of Religious Freedom, Prime Minister Harper referenced the “repression and intimidation” that takes place. During this visit, Harper raised religious freedom with Zhejiang’s communist party secretary Xia Balong.
Despite the above, China continues to want to do more business with Canada. However, given that many Canadians have serious misgivings about China and the communist party, various media outlets have reported that despite Chinese offers to negotiate a free trade agreement, Canada has yet to agree to such measures.
Significant challenges remain. Countering Chinese espionage remains a serious concern. Clearly, we need to do more in getting better access for Canadian companies and bringing greater balance to the trade relationship (currently it heavily favors China). Equally worrisome is the lack of improvement in certain consular cases, including the cases of Heseyin Celil, and Kevin and Julia Garratt. These and other pressing issues remain in the bilateral relationship.
What the Canadian government has successfully managed to do (so far) is maintain a strong, principled voice when it comes to promoting our values (including religious freedom) and promoting our economic interests.