OTTAWA—In some ways Wang Bingwu’s effort to free his brother from prison personifies Canada’s relationship with China.
Bingwu is a Chinese Canadian hoping he can convince the Beijing regime to let his 66-year-old brother, Chinese democracy activist Wang Bingzhang, out of jail before he dies there.
For 11 years, Bingwu has kept quiet about his brother’s imprisonment while going back and forth from Canada to China to teach engineering and carry out philanthropic activities.
Bingzhang has spent much of that time, possibly all of it, in solitary confinement.
Bingzhang was a prominent Chinese democracy activist living in the United States who was kidnapped in Vietnam 11 years ago while meeting Chinese labour activists there. For six months, the family had no idea where he was.
“We just lost him,” said Bingwu. Eventually, the Chinese regime released details of Bingzhang’s arrest and then sentenced him to 65 years in prison on trumped up terrorism and espionage charges.
The family was shocked, said Bingwu. “We all cried. We couldn’t believe he deserved that kind of sentence.”
Until now, Bingwu had been afraid to rock the boat, hoping something would change and he wouldn’t have to risk his connections and opportunities in China by pushing too hard for his brother’s release.
Now however, he and his sister Wang Jinhuan and others are taking a stand outside of the Chinese embassy in Ottawa. They’ve begun a daily vigil to demand their brother’s release. Placards show the family during happier times; one shows Bingzhang’s children, now young adults.
“I think it is a brave thing—it takes tremendous commitment,” said Chinese democracy activist Yang Jianli, who travelled from Washington, D.C., to join the family recently at their protest outside the embassy.
The family has vowed to keep protesting until Bingzhang is released. Yang admitted it’s an uphill battle against Goliath, but said sooner or later the camel’s back will break, and every day they protest adds one more straw.
“We have to do things to make [the regime] care, we have to raise the cost,” he said.
A handful of democracy activists from Toronto and Montreal came out to lend their voice. After several hours, they grew bold and posted a sign reading “demolish” in Chinese on the pointed iron bars that encircle the embassy.
The character appeared on the Chinese embassy in Washington recently as well. Some say it is a protest to forced demolitions taking place in China. Others say it means it is time to bring down the regime.
In the time Bingzhang has been locked up, both his parents have died. The family hasn’t told him of his mother’s death after what happened when his father died six years earlier.
“He suffered a stroke because he had gone on a hunger strike for a few days,” said Bingwu.
It’s important in Chinese culture—deeply important—to pay final respects to one’s parents. Bingwu doesn’t want to see his brother die demanding that right.
For Bingwu, it’s an uncomfortable balance, trying to free his brother while hoping to stay in the regime’s good books.
Even now as he protests the abuse of his brother, he wants the regime to know he still wants to go there and share his engineering knowledge and offer a scholarship to Chinese students at his alma mater.
“I hope my activity of trying to free my brother will not affect my return to my home country to give my knowledge. That’s what I want to really say. I hope to still go back and forth freely.”
But Bingwu is willing to lose that opportunity if necessary. He says his brother doesn’t deserve to die alone in prison, locked away from his sons and daughter, unable to pay final tribute to his deceased parents.
Bingwu said his brother is more interested in researching the origin of Chinese characters now than pushing for democracy. He would be good, pledged Bingwu.
Bingwu is putting his relationship with the Chinese regime on the line. For him, family comes first now.
Chinese dissidents and human rights activists have long hoped countries like Canada would take a stand similar to Bingwu’s and be willing to risk business ties to make a determined call for mass abuses in China to stop.
Critics of Canada’s closer ties with the regime have voiced unease about current efforts to secure an investment treaty with China in part because it seems to preclude pushing the human rights agenda.
But the fact that the FIPA deal has sat for nine months without being finalized could mean something has changed.
The NDP and others have suggested that the Conservative caucus finds the deal unpalatable, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper put the deal on hold due to those concerns.
With China’s economy now showing serious cracks, the FIPA might not look as rosy as it once did, particularly if an economic downturn fuels a sharp rise in unrest in China, as some, including Yang, predict it will.
Yang says the efforts Chinese democracy activists are making to bring elections to China hinge on a downturn.
“If the economy slows down, that will lay bare all the problems,” he said.
It’s a situation the Chinese regime itself has voiced concern about and a major reason for its massive public security apparatus and overarching emphasis on stability.
But with the Chinese economy facing an almost impossible dilemma, a significant disruption is beginning to look likely to many prominent economists such as Patrick Chovanec, chief strategist at Silvercrest Asset Management.
Chovanec is among a growing list of China watchers who point to systemic flaws in the Chinese economy.
Systemic Economy Flaws
Efforts the regime made to replace China’s economic dependence on exports—which have lagged since the 2008 global downturn—with domestic consumption have been paid for with loose credit that has now turned into non-performing loans.
Bad loans are exacerbated by an oversupply of factories and housing created by that loose credit. Social unrest has also been stoked by forced evictions as developers take that easy money to build expensive projects, some of which never sell, resulting in unpopulated sparkly new ghost towns, empty ports, and silent factories.
But if the regime turns off the stimulus taps, the GDP will drop, unemployment will rise, and unrest is expected to grow. Unrest had already reached dangerous levels in 2012, warned U.S. ambassador Gary Locke in an NPR interview.
Fixing the problem is made more difficult by a shadow banking sector that has seen even major Chinese banks, like the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, default on “guaranteed” investment products, and effectively disappear capital investments by ordinary Chinese.
For a country like Canada, making an economic bet on Chinese growth could now look like an uncertain thing at best. And while that might be bad for the economy, it could be good for Bingwu.
Bingwu said he is now ready to risk ties with China because time is running out for his brother. After years of lying low, he’s ready to take a stand.
“It is time for my friends and family and all the people around us to voice our concern.”
He hopes Canada will do the same, which it has in the past. And if trade with China looks less certain than it once did, that voice could grow louder.