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Canada resumes 'quiet diplomacy' with China

May 14, 2009

Harper government's new secret bilateral dialogue
on human rights a tacit acceptance of violations, critics say
The Globe and Mail (Canada)
May 12, 2009

BEIJING -- Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon set
out today to put Canada's rocky relations with
China onto a new "forward-lookin" course, albeit
by borrowing heavily from Liberal policies that
his government had previously dismissed as ineffective.

Speaking to students here at the China Foreign
Affairs University, Mr. Cannon acknowledged that
the Canadian-Chinese relationship -- damaged in
recent years by disputes over human rights,
Tibet, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's
decision not to attend last years Beijing
Olympics – has “gone through its ups and downs.”
But Mr. Cannon said he hoped relations between
Ottawa and Beijing could be “frank, friendly and
forward-looking" from this point forward.

But the new China policy that Mr. Cannon appeared
to be signalling today is more a retreat to the
past, where Canada pushed human-rights concerns
to the back-burner in favour of growing trade
relations. Mr. Cannon told journalists that
something similar to the old Canada-China
Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue would soon be
formed, though likely with a different name and a slightly different format.

"What we are proposing, and we want to be able to
move forward with this, is a mechanism whereby
both parties will be able to look at this issue,"
Mr. Cannon told a press conference hosted by the
Canadian Embassy a day after he met with Foreign
Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice-President Xi
Jinping. “I don't like using the words
human-rights dialogue. I want to propose a
mechanism whereby everybody will feel comfortable as we move forward."

The old human-rights dialogue, which began in
1997 under former prime minister Jean Chrétien,
was criticized by human-rights groups as an
ineffective tool that allowed Beijing to make a
show of listening to international concerns while
doing little to change its policies on the
ground. It was abandoned by Mr. Harper's
government soon after it took office in 2006.

Human-rights groups still contest there is little
point in resuming such contacts now, since
Beijing seems no more willing to change its
policies toward political dissidents, independent
media and capital punishment than it was three
years ago. "It is our contention that resuming
quiet diplomacy by a secret bilateral dialogue
with China on human rights has the effect of
implying tacit acceptance of Chinese government
violations of the universal norms of human
rights," read a letter delivered to Mr. Cannon's
office last week by the umbrella Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China.

The sudden willingness of the Conservatives to
bring back something like the human-rights
dialogue seems part of a broader effort to
restart relations with Beijing after three years
in which critics say Canada both lost its former
political influence in China and missed out on valuable trade opportunities.

While Canada's new policy toward China remains in
many ways undefined, Mr. Cannon's visit follows
close on the heels of a trip by Trade Minister
Stockwell Day, who made headlines by reverting to
another old Liberal policy and reopening six
trade offices around China that had been shut in
recent years. Mr. Harper is also expected to visit Beijing later this year.

There's clearly a lot of fence-mending to be
done. The fact that many Chinese now perceive
Canada as something other than a friendly country
came through clearly during Mr. Cannon's
question-and-answer session with students at the
China Foreign Affairs University.

"In the past several years, this administration
of Canada has emphasized a lot human-rights
issues or Tibet issues, so there has been a
downturn of relations between China and Canada. I
want to know whether your visit and the visit of
the Trade Minister … means a positive change in
China and Canadian relations and means a positive
change in the foreign policy of this admin to
china?” was how one student, a 24-year-old
international relations major named Zou Jianye,
sharply put the point. The question forced Mr.
Cannon to retreat to platitudes about the
prospect of "good relations in the coming years."

Other students asked Mr. Cannon about the
controversial case of Lai Changxing, a top
Chinese fugitive who has sought refuge in Canada
from corruption charges, as well as perceived
anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada, and why
Canada's foreign policy was so often
indistinguishable from that of the United States.

The grilling Mr. Cannon got from the Chinese
students was better than the average session of
Question Period in the House of Commons, quipped
Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, who is
shadowing the visit along with Olivia Chow of the
New Democratic Party. Nonetheless, he said he was
pleased to see the Harper government ease its reflexive anti-China stand.

"It's a coming to maturity of the Harper
government," Mr. Rae said. "I think frankly
[relations with China] will improve as result of
what we've seen in the past several months."

Still, the Conservatives have clearly put
themselves in an awkward spot by trying to move
toward a pro-business position on China after
years of promising not to sacrifice human-rights
principles in the name of trade.

Asked by a journalist about the looming 20th
anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre of
student protesters on Tiananmen Square, Mr.
Cannon said he had raised the "larger scheme of
things in terms of human rights” during his
meetings with Chinese officials, though he did not elaborate.

"Canada's position has not changed. You know that
our foreign policy is based on the promotion and
development of human rights, on democracy, and on
freedom, as well as the rule of law. That's part
of our DNA, and we won't change that.”

But while Mr. Cannon's entire press conference at
the Canadian Embassy was translated into English
and Chinese, Mr. Cannon's response to the
Tiananmen question was not translated into Chinese for the local media present.

Embassy officials later said that the translation
was cut off because the minister, who flew to
Shanghai later in the day, was falling behind schedule.
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