OTTAWA—Prime Minister Stephen Harper landed in China today and set off on a series of meetings with dual demands from businesses and communities back home.
While Canadian business leaders hope the PM’s high-level elbow rubbing with Chinese officials will give them an edge there, communities of Canadians want the PM to speak up for friends and families in China facing imprisonment and death for political and religious beliefs.
It’s a conflicted demand on the Prime Minister; closer ties with China are seen in some quarters as a tradeoff for silence over ongoing abuses.
Harper’s itinerary is dominated by business meetings, though his office pledged in a sentence of a lengthy release that the PM “will also engage in an open and frank dialogue on issues that are paramount to Canada: human rights, good governance and transparency, security and the rule of law.”
It’s a sliver of hope for the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in Canada, an umbrella organization that includes groups from Chinese democracy activists to the Falun Dafa Association of Canada.
Representatives of several of the groups in the coalition gathered for a press conference on Parliament Hill Thursday morning, sharing the problems faced by Tibetans, Uyghurs, and others, in the hope that some media attention might compel the prime minister to take more decisive action.
The situation in China has seen few improvements but many setbacks where human rights are concerned, said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.
For this reason, Harper needs to put China’s “very troubling human rights record” high on his priority list during meetings with Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other senior officials in the Chinese regime, Neve said.
“There are a growing number of prisoner cases with strong Canadian connections,” Neve noted.
Call for Rights
Those cases include the life sentence being served by Dr. Wang Binzhang, a democracy activist who graduated from McGill University and whose daughter has called on Harper to rescue her father.
Outside, Paul Li was holding a banner telling visitors to the Hill about his father’s imprisonment in China for practicing Falun Gong.
Inside, a young man talked about the violence his family suffered under the communist regime.
“My father was shot 30 years ago in Tibet advocating for freedom that we take for granted here in Canada,” said Urgyen Badheytsang, national director of Students for a Free Tibet Canada.
Toronto has one of the largest Tibetan communities in the world, and many there have family members and friends who have been arrested, tortured, and killed by the Chinese regime.
The violence is ongoing, said Badheytsang. New regulations are in place that invoke collective punishment, which punishes entire communities for the acts of individuals.
It’s a method the regime uses to repress many groups, including Falun Gong, by turning family members and friends into enforcers of the regime’s repressive policies and pressuring potential dissidents to keep silent.
The hopelessness of Tibetans has given rise to self-immolations, with over 133 people since 2009 lighting themselves on fire in protest over severe repression, said Badheytsang.
Harper visits China as democracy protests in Hong Kong enter their second month. The protesters have remained peaceful despite early incidents of police crackdown, but violence against them continues.
“Triad society members have attacked peaceful demonstrators and sexually assaulted them, but were released by police without being charged,” said Gloria Fung, a spokesperson for Canada-Hong Kong Link, an organization of Hong Kong diaspora in Canada.
Fung noted that there are 350,000 Canadians in Hong Kong. She said Canada is duty-bound by its shared values of democracy and rule of law to compel the Chinese leadership to respect the “one country, two systems” deal that was to eventually give Hong Kong universal suffrage.
Xun Li, president of the Falun Dafa Association of Canada wants Harper to speak against the practice of forced live organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China, particularly targeting adherents of the Falun Gong spiritual discipline.
“Organ harvesting cannot be ignored,” said Li.
“You have to urge Xi to end this practice towards Falun Gong in China,” Li called on Harper.
Time to Act
Neve said China’s interest in Canadian resources gives us an edge and now is the time to act.
“We can no longer shrug our shoulders and pretend that Canada’s views don’t matter in Beijing,” said Neve.
China’s hosting of the APEC meeting conveys its influence in the world, influence that should be tempered by its human rights record, Neve said. He called on the world leaders gathered there to make a joint statement in China to improve human rights in that country.
It’s a familiar chorus of voices that speak when Harper and other officials travel to China, though most visits take place with little fanfare beyond a press release when ministers and others return from there.
Visits are heavily focused on developing the Chinese market for Canadian products and services, and Harper has scored some wins on that front. It’s widely held he will be announcing that Canada will soon become a trading hub for the Chinese yuan, allowing businesses here to settle transactions in the Chinese currency and skip the expense and hassle of translating deals through U.S. dollars.
Canada’s would be the first yuan hub in North America and is expected to draw investment into Canada and give companies here a competitive advantage.