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Tibet activists worry China using MPs for propaganda

May 24, 2009

Joanna Smith, Ottawa Bureau
The Toronto Star (Ottawa)
May 24, 2009

OTTAWA -- There were no hurt feelings when Paul
Dewar's face was cropped from the photograph.

The New Democrat MP (Ottawa Centre) said when
someone called his office to invite him to a
Chinese art show, he happily worked it into his schedule.

Only after he showed up and saw photos
contrasting life in Tibet before and after the
abortive 1959 revolt against Chinese rule did he
realize he had been drawn into what activists are
criticizing as a secretive travelling propaganda campaign.

The photo exhibit, entitled "Tibet: Past and
Present," was described in websites of the
Canadian embassy and foreign affairs ministry of
the People's Republic of China as a celebration
of 50 years since the end of serfdom in Tibet.

"After the democratic reform, the social system
of Tibet has developed by leaps and bounds; its
modernization has advanced rapidly; Tibetan
society has undergone gigantic historic changes;
and remarkable progress has been made in the
cause of human rights, which has attracted
worldwide attention," the May 14 press release stated.

The release mentions Dewar's presence at the May
9 launch, along with federal Transport Minister
John Baird, provincial Housing Minister Jim
Watson and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre,
(Nepean-Carleton), parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Chinese ambassador Lan Lijun gave opening remarks
at the old Nepean city hall building in Ottawa.

Chris Day, a spokesperson for Baird, said in an
email that the minister saw the event purely as a
chance to meet with riding constituents. Neither
Watson nor Poilievre responded to requests for comment.

Chinese embassy spokeswoman Hailing Geng said
yesterday she would have to learn more about the
exhibit before commenting. She never called back.

Activists worry the politicians are being duped
by a dubious rebranding campaign. Chinese
authorities want to "use their names and use
their attendance to propagate a sense of
international support for their policies," said
Tsering Lama, national director for Students for a Free Tibet Canada.

She described the exhibit as contrasting
black-and-white images depicting Tibetans in
horrible conditions pre-1959 with colour photos
of them living happily with modern luxuries afterward.

The Montreal Chinese Community and Cultural
Centre held a cocktail reception for the exhibit
April 26 featuring Lijun and a handful of Quebec politicians.

Centre manager Anna Xu said she received the 80
photos from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa.

Montreal-area Liberal MP Alexandra Mendes
described her surprise when she saw the exhibit.

"I was invited to attend the christening of the
new dragon that the embassy had offered the centre," she said.

"When I got there, that's when I was told that
there was going to be also the launch of this
exhibition on Tibet and, obviously for questions
of politeness, I wasn't going to turn my back and leave."

Dewar said he was not told the embassy had organized the exhibit.

"It's rather clumsy if you're trying to engage
Canadians and politicians on a subject as sensitive as Tibet," he said.

"It's a curious way of doing diplomacy and I'm not sure how successful it is."

The press release -- which is accompanied by a
photo of the other Ottawa-area politicians
attending at the event -- does bring a comforting thought to his mind.

"I noted I wasn't in the picture, which is just
fine," Dewar said with a chuckle.
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