When it comes to trade with China, a new public opinion survey shows that two out of three Canadians are clear on one thing: human rights should be linked to free trade negotiations with Beijing. Just 21 percent said human rights should not be linked.
The Nanos Research survey also found that nine out of ten Canadians are “uncomfortable” (59 percent) or “somewhat uncomfortable” (29 percent) with allowing Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOE) to buy high-tech Canadian firms, and with ending restrictions barring these enterprises from investing in the oilsands.
The survey of 1,000 Canadians, which was conducted for The Globe and Mail, also showed that 71 percent of respondents oppose allowing Chinese SOEs to take over Canadian firms without national security tests in any future trade deal.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Canada’s ambassador to China, John McCallum, are pursuing ever greater engagement with the world’s most populous nation. Trudeau has made a Canada-China free trade agreement a key priority, and to that end Ottawa is currently conducting talks with Beijing.
Regarding human rights in China, however, Chinese officials are adamantly opposed to including the issue in free trade discussions.
McCallum has said in the past that human rights will be part of any free trade agreement between the two countries, but in recent comments to the Globe he said that while trade talks can touch on environmental and labour issues, “it’s not clear to me that human rights, per se, are a part of a free trade agreement.”
At the 6th Annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom in Ottawa on April 3, several speakers sounded a word of warning regarding trade negotiations with China.
China remains one of the countries with the most severe restrictions on religious freedom, former religious freedom ambassador Andrew Bennett told the audience.
“That has to be factored in how the Canadian government approaches human rights,” he said, adding that Canadian corporations investing and doing business in China also need to account for that in their corporate social responsibility frameworks.
“They need to be aware first and foremost of human rights violations that continue in China—that needs to be factored into their approach to CSR.”
Those countries seeking a deeper relationship with China—in politics, trade, or defence—must exercise due care and not overlook ongoing abuses, he said.
“We need to hold the Chinese government’s feet to the fire.”
“It continues to be a real challenge to try to find answers to an expanding economy, the desire for trade,” said Liberal MP Judy Sgro in an interview after the forum.
“But Canada does have to be extremely careful that it is not naive in its relationship [with Beijing]. And there needs to be conditions as we move forward on rights. Ensuring religious freedom is one,” she said.
“Some folks say progress has been made with China in getting them to be a little more respectful, but I think there is an awful long way to go to insist that China be respectful of human rights, religious rights.”
Trade and human rights should both be prioritized, Sgro said. “I am hopeful that that’s the direction our PM and our government is going in.”
Political and religious repression, extrajudicial killing, torture, and mass detention of prisoners of conscience remain prevalent in China according to human rights groups, a fact that has not escaped Canadians.
The treatment of the Chinese people by the Beijing regime is something Canadians care about, said Conservative MP Harold Albrecht.
“I think many of my constituents—probably 90 percent or more—would urge us as a country to be more vocal in expressing our concern that Chinese people do need the basic freedoms that we take for granted in Canada,” he said.
Albrecht said Canada shouldn’t be afraid to be direct with China regarding injustices in that country.
“When we enter into trade relationships or political relationships, it’s important that we are not afraid to identify the lack of freedom that our Chinese brothers and sisters are experiencing and to draw the attention of the international community to these injustices,” he said.
“It’s incumbent upon us as Canadians.”