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PM Trudeau faces calls to raise human rights, Tibet during China visit

August 29, 2016

By Jessica Murphy

The Guardian, August 29, 2016 - Justin Trudeau will need to walk a thin line as he seeks to reset Canada’s relationship with China while balancing human rights concerns – and a domestic audience wary of the Asian power.

Canada’s prime minister arrives on Tuesday for an eight-day official visit to China, ending at the G20 summit in Hangzhou, an industrial and economic powerhouse on China’s south-eastern coast.

Trudeau’s Liberal party is billing this first official visit as an opportunity to build a closer long-term relationship with China compared with what party members call the “ad hoc” relations of the past.

The trip’s focus will be on building commercial, cultural and tourism ties with China, where Trudeau will meet with officials, business leaders and entrepreneurs such as Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Hong Kong business magnate Li Ka-shing, and former pro basketball player Yao Ming. Canada is also seeking better cooperation on global issues such as climate change.

The visit will once again put Trudeau in the footsteps of his father, Pierre, whose government re-established diplomatic relations in 1971 with China, 20 years after they were broken during the Korean war.

At the time few western countries formally recognized the Asian nation, and Trudeau’s overture served as a breakthrough for China on the world stage.

This time, it was China that made the first approach, following the election of the younger Trudeau last October.

In an op-ed published in the Globe and Mail newspaper in June, the Chinese ambassador to Canada, Luo Zhaohui, called for the two countries to work together to usher in a “golden era” of Canada-China relations, following a visit by China’s foreign affairs minister Wang Yi – the first in seven years. China has also expressed interest in forging a free-trade deal with Canada.

But while Trudeau’s family name may open doors, observers say he will need to wade clear-eyed into the diplomatic waters with a country that is now an ambitious geopolitical power.

“The great role Canada played in our own small way bringing China in from the cold – that was appreciated by China and is still appreciated by China. So if you have a little collateral, you might as well use it,” said Hugh Stephens, with the  Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. “[But] he has to tread carefully – he’s got to be seen as not overtly pro-China, to represent broad Canadian interests.”

Former diplomat David Mulroney, who served as ambassador to China between 2009 and 2012 and is now with the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto, warned that the goodwill that comes with the Trudeau name will only go so far.

“Trudeau’s lineage will be important to the Chinese,” he said. “But at the end of the day, they’re very hard-nosed and business oriented.”

Mulroney said the prime minister would have to sell Canadians on the importance of engaging with the Chinese while reassuring a skeptical public that Canada would push back on issues such as human rights, cybersecurity and intellectual property.

“Is that easy to do? No, it’s very challenging. And the Chinese make it as difficult and challenging as possible,” he said.

Ahead of the trip, Trudeau faced calls from activists to highlight concerns over human rights abuses, Tibet and the treatment of Falun Gong practitioners.  The son of Kevin Garratt, a Canadian detained in China on spying allegations, appealed to the prime minister to raise his father’s case.

While China is Canada’s second-largest single-country trading partner after the US, a survey released last February by Nanos Research indicated two-thirds of Canadians held a negative or somewhat negative view of the Chinese government.

Trudeau has told reporters that although he was interested in building economic and trade links, he also intended to raise human rights concerns during his visit.

The subject of human rights remains sensitive: Wang provoked outrage in Canada after lashing out at a journalist for asking about the country’s human rights record.

Wang berated the journalist’s question as “full of prejudice against China and arrogance” and as “totally unacceptable”, to the visible discomfort of global affairs minister of Stephane Dion, who stood next to him.

In January, Reuters reported that Canada joined the US, Germany, Japan and the European Union in expressing concern over a new counter-terrorism law in China and two draft laws, on cybersecurity and on the management of international NGOs, respectively.

But China offers too much potential for it to be ignored, said Mulroney.

“We have to grow up and realize the world is changing. China is much more influential. It will engage us whether we decide to respond or not. And it’s in our interest to maximize the upside and minimize the downside of that inevitable relationship,” he said.

In January, Reuters reported that Canada joined the US, Germany, Japan and the European Union in expressing concern over a new counter-terrorism law in China and two draft laws, on cybersecurity and on the management of international NGOs, respectively.

But China offers too much potential for it to be ignored, said Mulroney.

“We have to grow up and realize the world is changing. China is much more influential. It will engage us whether we decide to respond or not. And it’s in our interest to maximize the upside and minimize the downside of that inevitable relationship,” he said.

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