Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in Beijing on Sunday. On the agenda is a series of tête-à-têtes with China’s senior-most government leaders.  (ADRIAN WYLD / THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Trade, not human rights, is top of mind as Trudeau visits China
  • Mon, 12/04/2017 - 16:56

By ALEX BALLINGALLOttawa Bureau
Sat., Dec. 2, 2017

VANCOUVER—Make no mistake: Justin Trudeau is on a business trip.

As the prime minister departed British Columbia for Beijing on Saturday, the official itinerary of his visit to China was conspicuously free of events on human rights or scheduled meetings with advocates there. The same was true for the high-ranking staffers and cabinet ministers along for the journey, government officials said on the eve of the trip.

What is on the agenda is a series of tête-à-têtes with China’s senior-most government leaders, including private dinners with the president and premier, a roundtable with Canadian and Chinese business executives and a keynote speech at the Fortune Global Forum in the city of Guangzhou, which an official from the Prime Minister’s Office likened to Davos, the annual world summit of the uber-rich and powerful.

And yet Trudeau’s date at the dinner table of Chinese power comes as at least three Canadian citizens are languishing in the country’s jails, and human rights campaigners around the world are raising concerns about China under President Xi Jinping. He has been described as an “ultra-establishment hardliner” who has worked to solidify his control as the country’s “paramount leader.”

“We’ve seen a sweeping crackdown on freedom of expression, a crackdown on government critics, lawyers, journalists, activists — a very worrying and worsening human rights environment,” said Gloria Nafziger, a campaigner with Amnesty International.

Officials travelling with the prime minister said last week that Trudeau is ready to discuss human rights directly with Xi and with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang when he meets them in Beijing this week. However, the officials noted that the purpose of the trip is to “set the stage for greater trade and investment co-operation.” Many observers expect that, after months of “exploratory” discussions between Canada and China, the countries will announce a formal start to free trade talks during Trudeau’s visit.

International Trade Minister François-Philippe Champagne told reporters en route to China Saturday that Canada is approaching trade with its “eyes wide open” and will not sign a deal that compromises the country’s principles. He said he would raise the cases of imprisoned Canadians with his Chinese counterpart when they meet Monday.

“There is nothing more important for us (than) to stand with Canadians that need our support abroad,” Champagne said, adding that a good bilateral relationship can help even more.

“The best way to have frank discussions is to engage. That’s what we’re doing,” he said.

Global Affairs Canada, meanwhile, would only answer questions about Canadians jailed in China whose cases have been reported in the media, citing privacy legislation.

Of those, Huseyin Celil has been imprisoned the longest. An ethnic Uyghur from western China, Celil fled to Canada in the 1990s as a refugee. The father of four, who used to deliver pizzas in Hamilton, was arrested while visiting relatives in Uzbekistan in 2006. He was then extradited to China, and has been jailed on terrorism charges ever since, with his life sentence reduced to 20 years last year, when state media quoted him as saying his “crimes caused serious damage to the country.”

Celil’s wife, Kamil Telendibaeva, who lives in Burlington, told the Star last year that she hadn’t had any contact with him in 10 years. “He’s innocent. We want him freed. Release him,” she said at the time.

Another Canadian, Sun Qian, was arrested in Beijing in February. The Globe and Mail has reported that Sun, a recent convert to the Falun Gong religious movement, was charged with violating a Chinese statute that imposes years-long prison sentences on “whoever organizes and utilizes superstitious sects, secret societies and evil religious organizations.”

Then there is the case of John Chang and Allison Lu, winemakers from B.C. who were arrested in China in March 2016 and accused of smuggling by undervaluing their exports to the country. Their daughter, Amy Chang, has been pushing the Liberal government in Ottawa to intervene on behalf of her parents. Chang has been in jail since his arrest, while Lu has been prevented from leaving China.

Brianne Maxwell, a spokesperson for Global Affairs, told the Star in an email that Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland has raised the case of Chang and Lu directly with her Chinese counterpart twice this year, most recently at the APEC summit in Vietnam in November.

Maxwell said Canadian consular staff in China have also been in contact with local authorities regarding Sun, while they continue to press for access to Celil to ensure his well-being.

“We have raised the human rights situation in China at every appropriate opportunity, and we will continue to engage China to live up to its international commitments through frank and honest dialogue,” Maxwell said.

David Mulroney, Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012, said Chang and Lu’s case should serve as a warning to Canadians doing business in China. He noted that Chang had previously travelled on government trade delegations to the country, and said his arrest highlights how a customs dispute can quickly “morph” into criminal proceedings there.

“As more and more Canadians get involved in China and China business, more and more of them fall afoul of Chinese laws that are not transparent and heavily in favour of the home team,” he said. “It’s scary, dangerous and unfair.”

China’s perspective on human rights and the rule of law differs starkly from Canada’s, said Diana Fu, an assistant professor of Asian politics at the University of Toronto. She said the ruling Communist party’s philosophy on rights is centred on “social rights,” such as food, housing and health care.

“China pulled 700 million people out of poverty. If that’s not a tremendous ‘rights’ achievement, then what is? This is the line of thinking that informs the government’s stance towards rights,” she said.

“These social rights take precedence over political rights — the freedom of speech, media, association, and a host of other individual liberties that the West sees as inalienable.”

Even so, pressure is on Trudeau to push China on the western conception of rights while he’s in Beijing. A 15-member coalition of human rights groups published an open letter this week calling on the prime minister to place human rights “at the top of his agenda.”

Trudeau is scheduled to arrive in Beijing Sunday night.

With files from Tonda MacCharles and The Canadian Press

Categories: