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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

PM takes heat over Olympic decision

May 7, 2008

Harper has said he won't attend the Beijing Games' opening ceremonies
Miro Cernetig,
The Vancouver Sun
May 5, 2008

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has paid special attention to the Chinese-Canadian community, such as in 2006 when he accepted the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway from head tax survivor James Pon.
CREDIT: Jean Levac, CNS
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has paid special attention to the Chinese-Canadian community, such as in 2006 when he accepted the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway from head tax survivor James Pon.

It's generally gone unnoticed in Vancouver's mainstream English-language press. But for years, Stephen Harper has been trying hard to court our Chinese community, seeing it as an important vote to help him win a majority government in the next election.

He's dispatched Jason Kenney, secretary of state for multiculturalism, to the West Coast to provide words of comfort about the sexual abuse of Chinese women during the Japanese invasion of China, when many Chinese were forced to work as "comfort women."

Before that, the Conservative government outmanoeuvred the Liberals by becoming first to apologize for the head tax, the racist attempt to keep Chinese out of Canada. A few months ago, Harper even showed up on the West Coast to support the Chinese community's fundraising efforts to send assistance to those suffering in the deadly snow storms that paralysed southern China this winter.

But despite all the overtures, the prime minister's suddenly in, as they say in China, a spot of mafan. Trouble.

It's the Olympics. Canada's leader doesn't want to go to Beijing for the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games, a tone-deaf decision he said he made long ago. Unfortunately, he reiterated it just as the protests around the Olympic torch relay hit the international media.

The prime minister's decision hasn't gone over well with the Chinese government, which has all but frozen out high-end access for Canadian officials. And it's been even more of a diplomatic clunker within Canada's Chinese immigrant community, where many also see the Conservatives as hostile toward their birth country.

It's not hard to see why if you look at what's happening in Vancouver. Aside from Harper's perceived Olympic snub, many recently arrived Chinese-Canadians are angry about public statements from the government that Chinese spies operate in Canada. (Yes, it's true. But it's also not new and we're primarily talking low-level industrial espionage, which other countries also practise here.)

Probably most damaging, though, is the bizarrely undiplomatic gaffe of Conservative MP Rob Anders, who says today's China is our modern-day Nazi Germany. He even linked Beijing's Olympics to the infamous 1936 Olympics in Berlin, Adolf Hitler's coming-out party on the world scene.

It's hard to believe a responsible MP still looks at China in the manner Time magazine's Henry Luce did 50 years ago, but apparently Anders does and the PMO isn't gagging him. Count on Beijing's leaders taking note of this incendiary statement, which they suspect is part of Ottawa's moralistic attitude to China: "I absolutely 100 per cent think it compares to the Berlin Olympics in 1936. You've got Falun Gong practitioners, which are not allowed to participate in the Olympics. Adolf Hitler had issues with Jews being able to participate in the Olympics in 1936."

Not surprisingly, recent Chinese immigrants, who, like many new citizens, retain an emotional tie to their homeland, are incensed. Consider some of the backlash from commentators, rarely heard by non-Chinese Canadians:

"Harper's high-profile criticism of the Beijing Olympics means he has abandoned the best opportunity to resolve Canada's relations with

China . . ." wrote Li Mu, a commentator for the Global Chinese Press, a Chinese-language paper well read by Mainland Chinese immigrants.

"A PM who has a courteous attitude towards China, as opposed to one who is extremely anti-China -- that makes a lot of differences to the Chinese in Canada. ... Only an extreme anti-China/Chinese person would believe there are over one thousand China spies in Canada.

"Currently, Harper leads a minority government, and he already shows such an attitude. If he formed a majority government, he definitely wouldn't have any respect for the Chinese community."

Ouch. I'd be working on some community outreach if I were in the PMO.

Obviously, the one-million-strong Chinese community in this country is a diverse one. It would be a mistake to see it as monolithic or homogenous in its political views toward China.

But Chinese mainlanders, the newest wave of immigrants from that country, are a vociferous new element in Canadian society. They tend to be more reactive, nationalistic and politicized than those who have been here longer, or who came during the Tiananmen Square crackdown. If you don't believe that, go back over the last few weeks of local Chinese-language newspapers and notice the thousands who showed up to protest on Parliament Hill and Vancouver's Chinatown to show support for China and its crackdown in Tibet.

It's clear that Harper's decision not to attend the Olympics -- and his inability to discipline radical voices like those of MP Anders -- is causing a needless divide in Vancouver and Canadian society. It's further damaging Canada-China's relations and it's setting back his attempt to build political support in the run-up to the next federal election. So time to reconsider that decision not to attend Beijing's opening ceremonies, prime minister. After all, U.S. President George W. Bush is going. Japan's Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda hopes to. Other world leaders will follow.

Going doesn't mean kowtowing to China's regime. Even China's leadership doesn't expect -- and wouldn't respect --acquiescence. Rather, an appearance in Beijing is a chance to speak up for human rights and push Beijing for a less brutal policy toward Tibet from the inside, not the margins.

This is also the moment to begin repairing our country's damaged relations with a rising superpower. This overture will likely mean the Chinese leadership will reciprocate with similar visits during our 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.

So, go to Beijing, prime minister. It's good diplomacy, good politics and, ultimately, the kind of engagement that will put Vancouver, Canada and our national ambitions to be an Asia Pacific trading hub back on China's radar screen.

Right now we're being ignored.
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