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Don't self-censor to please China in trading relationship, exiled Tibetan leader tells Canada

June 18, 2018

National Post, June 17, 2018- During a visit to Ottawa this week, Tibet’s exiled political leader was warning Canada not to fall into a trap as its trade relationship with China deepens.

Especially amid recent uncertainty with Canada’s biggest trade partner, the United States, it makes economic sense to engage with China, said Lobsang Sangay, president of the Central Tibetan Administration, a “government-in-exile” based in India that represents Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama.

But Canada should be careful not to self-censor or turn a blind eye to human rights abuses by the Chinese government, he said in an interview with the National Post. It’s a trend that he said he has watched in Australia, which entered into a free-trade agreement with China in 2015.

“One should enter into trade with China. You do business with China. You have to have a relationship with China. You can’t avoid it, you can’t ignore it and you should make money,” Sangay said. “But you know, what I’ve noticed is the moment there’s a trade agreement with China, all of a sudden these countries start resorting to self-censorship. First Tibet, then Tiananmen, then Taiwan and all of the environmental and labour issues and women’s rights issues in China.”

Under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Canada has been inching closer to establishing free trade negotiations with China’s authoritarian government. But Trudeau’s “progressive” approach to trade is a non-starter with a government whose officials consider labour and gender issues to be “non-trade” concerns.

A former ambassador to China had told the Post that when Trudeau travelled to China in December, the reason free trade negotiations were not announced was that Canada wanted toinclude a reference to labour issuesin a press release but China wouldn’t allow it.

China’s officials typically point to the emergence of a huge middle class and the increase in economic prosperity as a sign that China is catching up to the rest of the world, and that the human rights, labour and gender equality situation will also improve with time. China has also tried in recent years to become an environmental leader, and is cited by Canada’s European allies — by French President Emmanuel Macron at the G7 summit in Quebec, for example — as now a more trusted partner on such issues than the U.S. And proponents of free trade say that agreements could help push China to improve its record.

But the Tibetan leader said he worries that Western nations are too quick to take China at its word, or worry about offending the Chinese government. He described mass political repression, the arrest of peaceful protesters and environmental ravaging on the Tibetan plateau. Sangay said emerging concerns should get more notice from Western governments, such as China’s new “social credit” system, already being sold to other countries’ governments after successful piloting in Tibet, and its policing of behaviour by facial recognition. Freedom House considers Tibet the second-least-free place in the world after Syria.

 “The Canadian government should speak out not necessarily as a criticism but as a matter of fact. The type of things that’s happening, if it’s wrong it’s wrong, if it’s right it’s right,” Sangay said. He explained that he wants Canada to advocate for a “middle way” approach — giving true autonomy to the region, but without challenging the national sovereignty of China with aspirations of independence. He likened this to provinces operating within Canada. 

Parliamentary committees have heard testimony from delegations out of the Tibet Autonomous Region itself, governed by China. During a hearing last month, representatives of the Chinese government talked about the increase in per-capita GDP for the region and improved living conditions “much better than before.” They said the “middle way” is not viable because they believe the Dalai Lama is seeking sovereign independence. As Conservative MP Garnett Genuis pointed out, Canadian officials have had difficulty entering Tibet to assess the status even of projects funded by the Canadian government. “We have no ability to assess your claims, because your government doesn’t allow us access,” he said.

The Dalai Lama is an honorary Canadian citizen. A delegation representing him comes to Ottawa annually. During Sangay’s visit he testified to committees at the House of Commons and Senate. He hosted a reception thanking Canada for taking in Tibetan refugees — they now number more than 10,000, by his estimation — and it was attended by a cross-partisan group of MPs including a member of the Liberal cabinet, Heritage Minister Mélanie Joly.

Sangay said he hopes the Canadian government can nudge the Chinese government in the right direction, and help encourage it to establish diplomatic talks with the exiled officials in India. A previous dialogue from 2002 to 2010, in which no particular breakthroughs took place, had its beginnings in Ottawa, he said, when a round of preliminary talks took place here. He suggested Canada, which China views as a “neutral” actor, could play some kind of “karmic” role again.

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