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"We Tibetans are looking for a legitimate and meaningful autonomy, an arrangement that would enable Tibetans to live within the framework of the People’s Republic of China."

Opinion - Blinded in Beijing: Trudeau, China and human rights

August 22, 2016

iPolitics, August 19, 2016 - News that Prime Minister Trudeau will soon be visiting China came as no surprise to anyone.  The G20 meeting has long been scheduled to take place in Shanghai.  What the announcement did reveal, however, was the level of importance that will be assigned to human rights within Canada’s new “strategic partnership” with China: none at all, apparently. 

I’m all for good governance and “growing” the middle class. These are noble (although somewhat ill-defined) objectives.  But like many Canadians, I had hoped for more from this government which came into power with the glorious promise of principled foreign policy based on international law and Canadian values.

As a Tibetan human rights activist, I had accompanied His Holiness the Dalai Lama during his meetings with Canadian Prime Ministers including Pierre Trudeau, Jean Chretien, Paul Martin, and Stephen Harper.  Each one passionately assured His Holiness that the promotion of human rights is a cornerstone of Canadian foreign policy. 

But Canadian foreign policy apparently doesn’t extend to China.

In the late 1990s when Canada de-linked trade and human rights, human rights in China were the immediate casualty. Canada quickly withdrew its traditional support for a resolution on China at the UN Commission on Human Rights – now the Human Rights Council. Subsequently bilateral discussions with Chinese officials about human rights were relegated to quiet behind-the-scenes exchanges between diplomats, hidden from public scrutiny. They have never re-emerged from the shadows. 

What that decision actually means today, twenty years later, is that Canada will openly defend human rights only when there is no economic price to pay.

It doesn’t matter what political party is in power; it’s always the same. This is despite consistent national polling that shows Canadians are uncomfortable doing business with countries that violate human rights.

Consider the amount of government resources devoted to enhancing economic cooperation with China. It far outweighs the resources assigned to protect or advocate human rights in China.  I would like to imagine a Canadian “human rights delegation” to China headed by the Prime Minister - but I know that instead I will be hoping for a polite reference to human rights somewhere in the context of a trade mission. 

In fact, requesting government advocacy around human rights tends to be treated as an irritant, dismissed in opinion pieces as someone hanging on to an old approach to the new modern China.  We all saw it play out when a Canadian journalist had the nerve to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi about human rights and received an immediate public rebuke. China has learned that it can violate the human rights of its citizens with impunity.

Meanwhile, the situation in Tibet today has reached a crisis point.  The appeals of more than 140 Tibetans who have self-immolated since 2009 in protest of China’s policies have gone unheard. As I write, Chinese authorities are in the process of demolishing the largest Tibetan Buddhist institute, apparently to make way for development. 

Tibet’s Panchen Lama, Gendhun Choekyi Nyima, second only to the Dalai Lama, has not been seen or heard from since May 1995 when he was abducted at age 6.  The Dalai Lama himself – a Nobel Peace Laureate and honourary citizen of Canada - is constantly denegrated in public statements by Chinese leaders who reject his reasoned approach to resolving the conflict in Tibet.

Even Canada’s newly announced decision to welcome significantly higher numbers of Chinese tourists, students, and unskilled workers to this country risks inadvertently supporting China’s discriminatory policies against Tibetans.   Since 2012 China has denied passports to Tibetans in contravention of even its own laws. Those very few who have been able to secure passports are subject to tight restrictions that do not apply to Chinese nationals.

Albert Einstein is believed to have once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result each time.  I am not sure who is more insane – the Government of Canada for still believing that quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy will move China, or myself for still believing that the Government of Canada will stand up for human rights and help resolve the crisis in Tibet.

Clearly this visit to China - the first by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau - is an opportunity to reset the tone of Canada’s future relationship with China.  I hope the Prime Minister seizes the opportunity to build that relationship based on a foundation of mutual respect, which includes being free to raise human rights concerns whenever they occur.

I hope he seizes the opportunity.  But I’m not holding my breath.

Thubten Samdup is co-founder of the Canada Tibet Committee, former parliamentary representative of Tibetans in North America, and former representative of His Holiness the Dalai Lama in the UK.

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