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Prime Minister Trudeau Shouldn’t Ignore China’s Jailed Activists

Visit Provides an Important Opportunity to Speak Out for Human Rights

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) gestures to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau ahead of their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China August 31, 2016. © 2016 Reuters

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau heads to China this weekend, arriving amidst a flurry of negative human rights developments.

This week a Chinese court handed down a harsh five-year sentence on Taiwanese activist Lee Ming-Che merely for discussing democracy in social media groups in China. Last week it was a two-year sentence against human rights lawyer Jiang Tianyong; authorities chose to conflate his peaceful legal activism with anti-state activity. Liu Xia – the widow of Nobel Peace Prize winner and dissident Liu Xiaobo – has been forcibly disappeared since her husband’s death in July.  And for the past decade Canadian citizen Huseyin Celil, an ethnic Uyghur, has been languishing in a Chinese prison without access to Canadian diplomats.

There’s scant detail about what rights-related recommendations the prime minister plans to put to President Xi Jinping – who has presided over the worst erosion of human rights in China since the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. Announcing the start of talks on a free trade agreement appear to top Trudeau’s agenda. But any such agreement can’t ignore the rule of law, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and respect for ethnic minorities – issues that Canada has long been committed to and that Xi has shown profound hostility.

The past five years have shown that quiet diplomacy by visiting heads of government have little effect in curtailing Beijing’s abuses. Asking behind closed doors for a single person’s release, or merely stating concerns about abusive laws or practices, are appreciated but simply inadequate. This strategy allows Chinese officials to deny that these issues came up and robs interested Chinese citizens – the real engines of change – from knowing that their concerns were put on the table. 

Trudeau should demonstrate his leadership on improving human rights worldwide by publicly calling in China for the immediate release of Liu Xia and others.  A failure to do so betrays Canada’s values, and enables Beijing’s abuses. 

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