Ottawa’s plan to improve the Canadian public’s negative perception of the Chinese regime as the two countries look to increase bilateral relations and implement free trade deals took a step backwards with the Chinese foreign minister’s angry berating of a Canadian reporter last week.
According to media reports, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new government is in the midst of a major internal review of Canada’s relationship with China, looking to increase “human connections” with initiatives such as having 100,000 Canadian students study in China.
These “people-to-people” exchanges could reverse negative polling trends reflecting Canadian attitudes about China, according to China watchers cited by Postmedia News reported in April.
Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland pointed to the issue while speaking to the Canada-China Business Council about a free trade deal with China.
“A trade agreement in theory would be a great thing, but we need also to have a real community behind it,” she said.
A Nanos Research survey commissioned by The Globe and Mail in February showed that a majority of Canadians hold a negative view of a trade deal with China, with 47 percent opposing or somewhat opposing the idea, and 41 percent supporting or somewhat supporting it. As for the Chinese government, the perception is overwhelmingly negative, with 76 percent having a negative or somewhat negative view of the regime, compared to only 2 percent who have a positive view and 9 percent who have a somewhat positive opinion.
The scolding last week of a Canadian reporter who asked about human rights in China by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi during his visit to Ottawa can’t have helped.
At a joint press conference by Wang and Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion on June 1, Amanda Connolly of the iPolitics online news outlet asked Dion about human rights issues in China such as the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers that publish books critical of the Chinese regime, China’s aggression in the South China Sea, and the imprisonment of the Canadian citizen Kevin Garratt on charges of espionage in China.
Connolly, who was addressing Dion, asked why Canada is pursuing closer ties with China, how Canada plans to use the relationship to improve human rights, and whether Dion had raised the case of Garratt during his talks with Wang.
After Dion answered the question, Wang jumped in with his own response. Appearing visibly angry, he said through a translator: “Your question is full of prejudice against China, and arrogance … I don’t know where that comes from. This is totally unacceptable.” He added that it is the Chinese people who are “in the best position to have a say about China’s human rights situation.”
Reaction in Canada was swift. Tony Clement, the Conservative Party’s foreign affairs critic, said he was outraged that a Chinese official would berate a Canadian journalist. Other opposition MPs asked why Dion stood by quietly as Wang scolded the journalist.
Trudeau told reporters a few days later that he and Dion expressed their dissatisfaction to both Wang and the Chinese ambassador to Canada. Trudeau also said he will continue to bring up the issue of human rights when meeting with Chinese officials. Dion explained that he did not intervene because he considers “Madame Connolly as a professional with a thick skin, and she doesn’t not need me to go to her rescue.”
Former Liberal Justice Minister Irwin Cotler told the Epoch Times that contrary to what Wang said, characterizing the journalist’s question as being arrogant and irresponsible, it was the foreign minister himself that was in fact arrogant and irresponsible.
“I think in this instance, the foreign minister, rather than rebuking a Canadian journalist asking a very legitimate question, should have at the very least responded to the question, but in effect he betrayed his arrogance by characterizing what she did as arrogant,” Cotler said.
Clive Ansley, a British Columbia lawyer who practiced law in China for over a dozen years and has been involved in human rights cases related to China, said Wang’s behaviour is typical of how Chinese officials behave, and how Chinese embassies and consulates in Canada constantly interfere and meddle in Canadian activities.
“I think this incident in general is going to serve to reinforce the negative image that Canadians have of China,” he said.
Ansley said it’s not a bad thing if more Canadian students study in China, as they will be there for an extended period of time and will see the true situation. The type of exchanges that are problematic, he said, are the ones that “turn Canadians into Chinese ambassadors” after they spend a short period of time in China and only see the facade put up by the regime.
“For instance, we send Canadian judges over there … and they are introduced to Chinese judges, and they are often taken to see a trial in progress, and the trial is totally staged—it’s a performance by actors—and then the judges maybe sit down with the Chinese judges and think they are meeting their counterparts,” he said.
“Those kinds of exchanges don’t benefit anybody but the Chinese government and those of our Canadian politicians who are essentially trying to aid the Chinese government.”
Not a First
Wang’s scolding of the iPolitics reporter wasn’t the first time a Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official berated a journalist outside mainland China, where journalists aren’t bound by the CCP’s censorship constrictions.
In an infamous incident in 2000, then-Chinese leader Jiang Zemin lashed out at a Hong Kong reporter for asking him whether he had in effect “imperially” appointed Hong Kong’s chief executive for a second term.
Getting out of his seat and waving his hands erratically, Jiang said, “You are very familiar with the Western set of values, but you are too young.”
He then boasted that he had visited Western countries, and that he had “talked and laughed comfortably” with renowned CBS correspondent Mike Wallace. “He’s way above you all … which is why the media need to raise your level of knowledge.”
In the interview, Wallace asked Jiang why China had not conducted popular elections, to which Jiang replied: “The Chinese people are way too low in education.”
Jacob Kovalio, an associate professor at Carleton University’s Department of History and an Asia researcher, takes umbrage at the suggestion that the Chinese people couldn’t handle democracy.
He points to the irony that Wang’s outburst in Ottawa occurred only three days before the 37th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre.
“I remember very vividly being one of the thousands of Canadians marching on Parliament Hill in protest against [then-Chinese leader] Deng Xiaoping … and the entire gang in Beijing who ordered the bloody attack on the democracy movement,” he said.
“So of course the Chinese people have absolutely no [possibility] whatsoever in the Beijing of today to say what they think about human rights in China,” he added, referring to Wang’s remark that the Chinese people are in the best position to comment on the country’s human rights.
Kovalio points to examples from history of the Chinese people’s struggle for freedom, countering the claim that they aren’t ready for democracy.
One was the “Hundreds Flowers Campaign Movement” of 1956, where then-CCP leader Mao Zedong encouraged unrestricted criticism of the regime, resulting in a flood of criticism about the lack of human rights and freedom of expression in the system. However, Mao went on to use the campaign to identify those critical of the regime and punish them harshly.
There was also the “Democracy Wall” in the late 1970s, where people put up pro-democracy messages on a brick wall in Beijing before Party leaders decided to act and had the movement’s activists arrested. And of course the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where thousands died calling for democracy, as well as the recent anniversary of the massacre held in Hong Kong on June 4, where thousands rallied to remember those who died.
The Problem with Appeasement
As a historian, Kovalio recalls the Europe of the 1930s and the rise of fascism, and is concerned about a CCP-ruled China seeing itself as the heavyweight in the Asia-Pacific region as well as the rest of the world.
“If you appease regimes of this kind for too long, you are not improving the international situation, let alone the situation of the Chinese people themselves. You’re just making things worse.”
He warns against governments of Western democracies enabling the Chinese regime.
“The fundamental principle economically speaking is, or should be, that the Beijing regime should not be given the possibility to play one free country against another,” he says.
Kovalio said it is unacceptable in the 21st century for Western democracies to be supporting the Beijing regime, which he notes “is anything but for freedom, anything but for fairness, is engaging in cyber theft, cyber espionage,” and has among its ranks people like former leader Jiang Zemin, a notorious human rights violator who oversaw the setup of “the illicit organ trade system” in China.
The trade he’s referring to is the forced organ harvesting of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience, including Uyghurs and Falun Gong practitioners. Falun Gong, or Falun Dafa, is a spiritual meditation practice that exploded in popularity in the 1990s in China. Jiang Zemin felt threatened by the traditional practice’s popularity and in 1999 launched a campaign to eradicate its followers that continues to this day.
Although Jiang formally stepped down in 2002, he has maintained power through allies in the Party that he put in key positions. Current leader Xi Jinping has been making a systematic effort to expunge that influence while going after corrupt officials.
“Let’s prove to ourselves that we’ve learned from history,” Kovalio said. “If we want to deal with evil, which is what this regime is all about, then we should learn to do it—peacefully.”