The Chinese government didn't bully or buy Canada's silence on human rights last week. On his July 16-20 debut visit to China, Foreign Minister John Baird gave it away free.
Baird relegated all discussions about human rights to closed-door meetings with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, and declined to discuss the substance of those talks in any detail. Yang is the official who had denied that Chinese police assaulted several foreign journalists in downtown Beijing on Feb. 27, despite video evidence and testimony by witnesses to the contrary. Yang must have been pleased with Baird's performance.
Baird was unapologetic about soft-pedaling human rights with his Chinese hosts. Instead, he insisted that engaging Chinese government officials on human rights in opaque, private meetings was more effective than "sitting at home and griping" from Ottawa. Baird isn't the first Canadian foreign minister to dilute his government's human rights engagement with China. In May 2009, his predecessor, Lawrence Cannon, insisted that the Canadian government needed to be "working on the inside with the Chinese leadership" on human rights rather than "to be outside and criticizing."
These views reflect the impact of unrelenting criticism of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's China stance by both the Chinese government and elements of the Canadian business community. Critics contend that, despite a 57 per cent increase in bilateral trade over the past five years, Harper's outspoken positions have harmed Canadian business interests. The June 2006 decision to award the Dalai Lama honorary Canadian citizenship on the basis of being a "champion of human dignity" didn't sit well with China, which has vilified him as a "wolf in monk's robes." Harper further raised the Chinese government's ire by declining to attend the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
But for a foreign minister who famously announced last month that he "gets it" on how to balance Canada's business and human rights interests with China, Baird couldn't have gotten it more wrong. After all, he's the highest profile official in the Harper cabinet to visit China since it began its worst campaign of repression in more than a decade earlier this year.
Since mid-February, dozens of lawyers, civil society activists, artists and bloggers have been detained, arrested, or isolated in house arrest or have been forcibly disappeared by state security forces. Most Canadians have heard about the activist-artist Ai Weiwei, who was forcibly disappeared and remained in police custody under "residential surveillance" for 80 days until his release on June 22, after allegedly confessing to tax fraud. But the whereabouts of others, such as the Guangzhou-based human rights lawyer Liu Shihui, remain a mystery. Liu disappeared on Feb. 20 after being brutally beaten by a group of unidentified people.
These abuses are indicative of the Chinese government's systematic attack on the rule of law in recent years, a trend that poses a clear-and-present danger to foreign governments seeking long-term, sustainable and mutually beneficial bilateral relations with China.
While quiet diplomacy is an essential tool of statecraft, Baird badly overestimates its value in leveraging meaningful responses from the Chinese government. Indeed, the record shows that the Chinese government does respond to vocal pressure over human rights abuses. Ai Weiwei's release wasn't brokered through backroom discussions, but was overwhelmingly a result of the vocal and consistent international outcry, which grew in volume and momentum throughout Ai's detention.
Equally important, the audience for the Canadian government's public messages of concern about human rights abuses and support for the persecuted isn't limited to Chinese government officials. Public statements provide desperately needed succor to Chinese citizens whose outspoken support for the rule of law and rights and freedoms embodied in China's constitution have made them targets for vindictive retribution by their government.
In November 2006, Prime Minister Harper said of Canada's relationship with China: "I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values, our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights. They don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar." At a time when those same values are under intensified assault in China, Harper needs to remind both John Baird and the Chinese government that Canadian complicity with such abuses isn't for sale.
Phelim Kine is a senior researcher for the Asia division of Human Rights Watch.