Days after Prime Minister Stephen Harper made headlines by insisting on talking human rights with Chinese leader Hu Jintao, witnesses speaking before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa lent support to Harper's stance with vivid accounts of the state of human rights in that country.
Speaking before the House of Commons Subcommittee on International Human Rights on Tuesday, Chinese democracy activist Sheng Xue said an email she sent to a contact in China had "landed him ten years in prison."
Sheng, who lives in Toronto, said she sent an email in 2004 to writer Shi Tao, discussing plans to mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre of student demonstrators in Beijing. Sheng received a reply crafted by the Chinese authorities saying they would "strictly prevent pro-democracy elements of foreign countries from entering China." Shi Tao was arrested and later sentenced.
The Chinese regime's crackdown on human rights defenders—particularly journalists and lawyers—was also on display Tuesday.
One woman testified about human rights lawyer Gao Zhisheng, who has been called "the conscience of Chinese lawyers." Gao was arrested in August after defending members of several persecuted groups in China, and sending open letters to Chinese leaders calling for an end to the persecution of Falun Gong.
In late 2005, Gao wrote based on his own investigation of the treatment of Falun Gong believers by the regime, "Almost every women's genitals and breasts [and] every man's genitals have been sexually assaulted during the persecution in a most vulgar fashion."
In one excerpt, he reported, "Inmates tied many knots on a thick rope and pulled it back and forth in a sawing motion across her [Lijun Wang's] vagina. Her entire lower body swelled up. The head police then ordered inmates to jab her swollen vagina with the thorny end of a broken mop stick."
Gao is currently the subject of an Amnesty International urgent action. Li Xun, president of the Falun Dafa Association of Canada says, "what is happening toward Falun Gong in China and other groups is not a normal human rights issue. It's an issue of crimes against humanity because of its systematic and widespread nature."
Witnesses also spoke to Canada's trade ties with China, arguing that the Chinese need Canada and the government should not fear a backlash for raising human rights publicly.
Cheuk Kwan, chair of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China, said the Netherlands had taken a public stand on human rights with the Chinese in the past and trade deals followed.
"China, like any other merchant in the world, will pick the best price and best quality goods on the market. Certainly they would not ignore a good bargain because of political considerations," said Kwan.
China is a large trading partner with Canada, but is a destination for only 1.6 per cent of Canadian exports. Last year, Canada ran a $22.5 billion deficit with the Chinese, according to Statistics Canada. The groups testifying before the committee included democracy activists, Falun Gong supporters, and PEN Canada, a group supporting the rights of journalists. All called for suspending the current dialogue with the Chinese regime.
Brock University professor Charles Burton authored a recent report highly critical of Canada's behind-closed-doors human rights dialogue with China. Burton testified before the same committee October 31. One of the findings of Burton's report was that the mandate of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to "defend China's interest abroad."
"It has no institutional interest in promoting respect for China's human rights domestically," Burton had said.
Liberal MP Borys Wrzesnewskyj is a member of the committee. Following the hearing he spoke to a rally of supporters on Parliament Hill.
"China is interested in trade with the first world, including Canada, the U.S. and the European Union," Wrzesnewskyj said. "We should be encouraging that trade, and at the same time encouraging not just economic profits but developments in human rights because in the future that will bring tremendous benefits to China and her people."