It was supposed to be that engagement with China would help universal values like freedom and human rights to flourish in that country. You'd be forgiven for failing to find examples of Chinese leaders who, after meeting with their Western counterparts, came away touting the benefits of free elections, independent judges, or an end to arbitrary labour camp sentences without trial.
Instead, it seems these days it's the Western officials who come away proclaiming they've changed their views.
Take the case last week of Ottawa Mayor Larry O’Brien, who a month after returning from China withdrew his promised support for a proclamation recognizing an Ottawa spiritual group whose believers just happen to be persecuted by the communist authorities in China.
O’Brien reportedly explained the move to renege on “Falun Dafa Day,” a proclamation he personally signed in previous years, by telling Ottawa councillor Alex Cullen, “I made a commitment.”
O'Brien would not answer when pressed by the Ottawa Citizen about the said promise.
Falun Dafa is a Chinese meditation practice that espouses values of truth, compassion, and forbearance, but has been the target of repression in China since 1999. According to Manfred Nowak, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, the majority the prisoners in China's labour camps are Falun Gong practitioners. Amnesty International says the group is among the most harshly persecuted in the country. Falun Dafa practitioners in Canada are among Chinese groups working to raise the profile of human rights in China.
“Quite frankly,” the Citizen quoted O’Brien as saying, “based on what I saw, the progress and the warmth and the happiness that I saw in China, it would be very difficult for me to try and create any kind of international incident.”
O'Brien isn't the first politician to put human rights and other Canadian values on the back-burner after returning from China, but he is among the few to be so explicit about it.
In an often-repeated routine, Canadian officials go to China and experience an unexpected and somewhat overwhelming hospitality. It’s part of Beijing’s efforts to win friends among Western officials, and it seems to work.
A case in point is former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan who pursued court action to shut down a Falun Gong protest site outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver.
“When I go to China, they treat me like an emperor,” Sullivan said while still in office.
Officials are wined and dined in China to a degree no other country matches. It is the most benign way the regime pursues foreign policy objectives, but the results can be surprising.
Results like the speech a Canadian judge gave when he returned from China saying Canada could never match the judicial system of that authoritarian country.
Clive Ansley, one of Canada's first lawyers to practice in China, lived there for 14 years and returned with blazing criticism for the blindness of experts praising the Chinese legal system.
He recently told a roomful of MPs and senators on Parliament Hill the story of that judge, who stood before a packed room of lawyers and said Canada could “never catch up” to the Chinese courts which featured plasma TVs and rooms made with mountains of marble.
China executes more prisoners than all other countries combined and has teams of medical and judicial staff that time executions to coincide with transplant deals, said Ansley.
Further, for all the laws the Chinese regime produces, none of them are enforced in the courtrooms independent of the local Party cadre’s approval. All judgments are subject and sometimes decided by party members rather than judicial staff, said Ansley.
“Banquet visitors” returning from China with glowing reports of progress “are just totally and utterly divorced from reality,” said Ansley, the China monitor for Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada, a group that advocates for lawyers and the rule of law.
And politicians relying on Canadian academics to get a more balanced viewpoint don’t fare much better. While politicians get seduced, academics get sequestered. With access to China critical to their careers, self-censorship among foreign researches has started to attract greater attention.
Carsten Holz, an economist and professor in the social science division of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, detailed his disappointment with how academia has subscribed whole-heartedly to the regime's viewpoints in an article he wrote for the Far East Economic Review.
“Foreign academics must cooperate with academics in China to collect data and co-author research. Surveys are conducted in a manner that is acceptable to the Party, and their content is limited to politically acceptable questions. For academics in China, such choices come naturally. The Western side plays along.”
Academics who don't play along lose access to Chinese research partners, data, and China itself when visas are denied.
Writing more recently for the New York Times, Emily Parker, a senior fellow at Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, detailed how these days foreign academics exercise more self-censorship than even Chinese scholars.
She writes about how Chinese writers are sometimes surprised by how wary westerners are of offending the regime.
“While Beijing’s censorship is well known, the self-censorship of Western writers is shrouded in uneasy silence. The idea that scholars ‘collectively are compromising our academic ideals in order to gain access to China offends people intellectually, but we all do it,’ a professor at a prestigious American university told me in a telephone interview,” she wrote.
“This caution shapes the overall body of Western books about China, which some say emphasizes the country’s economic success over its political repression.”