In recent months, the governments of Canada and China have been on a relationship roller-coaster. Accusations of a Chinese cyber attack on the National Research Council emerged in July, and just a few weeks later Canadian citizens Kevin and Julia Garratt were detained under allegations of espionage in what many believe to have been retaliation on the part of the Chinese for the hacking charges. All tensions aside, on November 5, Prime Minister Stephen Harper paid a visit to the economic giant of the east for a whirlwind six-day tour.
Harper’s trip was presented as most trips of its kind are: as having the commendable goals of “strengthening ties and strategic partnerships,” “deepening economic cooperation,” “encouraging investment,” “building relationships,” and “opening up opportunities.” But some have seen the highly publicized travels to China, then back to Canada for Remembrance Day, and then to New Zealand for the G-20 Summit as Harper flexing his international relations muscle in a bid to improve the Conservatives’ falling popularity ahead of the 2015 federal election. It may be true that Canada stands to benefit economically from warmer relations with China, but what issues are being ignored at the expense of all this trade-talk?
China’s emergence as an economic super-power is indisputable. After the United States, it is both the second-largest economy in the world and Canada’s second-most-important trading partner. On this trip alone, Harper and Chinese Premier Li Kequiang signed over 20 commercial deals valued at more that $1 billion.
Among these contracts is a reciprocal currency deal aimed at increasing trade between the two countries. Central to this agreement is the creation of a virtual currency hub, which will allow the direct exchange of Canadian dollars and the Chinese yuan renminbi — eliminating the US dollar middleman that is responsible for higher exchange rates and less efficient trade. According to a report by the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, this could double or even triple the level of trade, and result in as much as $32 billion in additional exports over the next 10 years.
But what about the human rights issues at play? Kevin and Julia Garratt (the couple detained for alleged espionage) have been imprisoned for over three months with no official charges laid, and very little information as to their whereabouts or the conditions for their release. While a Harper spokesman has maintained that the Prime Minister raised concerns over this issue in a closed-door meeting, Harper did not address the issue in public when Premier Li was asked about the Garratts. Instead, he offered up a vague response that they had discussed “a full range of issues in our bilateral relationship in a frank, open and friendly manner.”
Yet when asked about human rights and religious freedom later in his trip, Harper stated:
“As Canadians we cannot ignore these principles, they are not separable concerns.”
The Prime Minister also visited Hangzhou province, where he spoke to the Communist Party Secretary for the province, Xia Baolong about religious freedom violations such as the recent decree that crosses in churches violate building codes. This conversation also occurred behind closed doors.
By and large, the only information made public from Harper’s recent trip has been that surrounding the trade deals, which serve only to bolster his image as a strong leader of the federal economic agenda. The more difficult conversations — those surrounding human rights violations in China — have all remained off the record, implying that no real progress was made on this front. Announcing that a problem was discussed is not tantamount to improving the situation, and conversations kept private give no reason for confidence in change.
There has been growing international criticism of China’s human rights’ shortcomings. In a letter to President Barack Obama before his trip to China in October, Human Rights Watch referred the current conditions under President Xi Jinping as “a time of extraordinary and brutal repression of peaceful advocacy for human rights in China.” In light of recent the pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong, various international leaders have also spoken up to criticize China’s authoritarian style. Risking backlash from Beijing, Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou expressed his belief in a more democratic China to shorten the psychological distance between it and Taiwan.
Back at home, NDP Foreign Affairs Critic Paul Dewar has made it clear that his party expected human rights issues to be addressed by Harper. The specific issue of organ harvesting was high on both the NDP and Green Party’s list of items for the Prime Minister to address. Amnesty International Canada’s Secretary General Alex Neve — reflecting on the persecution of the Falun Gong movement, the Muslim Uyghur population, and the jailing of political dissenters — has also expressed the need for Canada and China’s relationship to be grounded in human rights:
“There have been very few improvements since [Harper’s last visit to China] – in fact, there have been far too many setbacks and ongoing violations in those three years.”
The federal government has recently committed millions of dollars to the construction of a Canadian Museum for Human Rights to promote human rights education. Yet if Canada, as Harper has publicly asserted, does not view human rights and religious freedoms as separable from other international relations issues, then he must apply that view on an international scale. Despite China’s surging economic importance in recent years, it must be held to that same important standard.
Lauren Wyman is a 2016 Master of Public Policy candidate at the University of Toronto’s School of Public Policy and Governance. She graduated in 2010 with a Bachelor of Arts from McGill University, where she completed a major in Political Science and a minor in Communications Studies. Lauren’s main ares of policy interest include municipal infrastructure and social policy.
[IMAGE SOURCE]: Jason Ransom