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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?"

Op-ed: We need more Sonam Wangchuks

June 22, 2020

By Sherap Therchin, Executive Director, Canada Tibet Committee

Ottawa, June 15, 2020 - As the world reopens after months of lockdown, we are still unsure about the possible aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic. We are still trying to understand the more immediate impacts of the pandemic in terms of public health, employment, education, and market opening. But one country – the country where the virus was first detected, is already in action to do what it does best – diverting public attention from the real challenges. The Government of China is back to its trick of exploiting nationalism to cover its failure, and nothing invokes the sense of nationalism as much as territorial conflicts. The latest of such provocative conflicts have happened in the Himalayan foothills of Ladakh – a remote Indian region that borders China-controlled Tibet.

The vast desert-mountainous region of Ladakh has been the site of several military standoffs in the past, but the timing of last week’s events indicates it is more than China’s run-of-the-mill geopolitical ambition and aggression. China watchers view it as Xi Jinping’s attempt to galvanize his support base at home.

In India, the government has applied countermeasures to stop China’s aggression by strengthening its military presence and preparation around the intruded areas. This habitual and unprovoked aggression from China has generated strong media attention in India - there is a campaign being initiated to boycott Chinese products. A prominent leader of the campaign is Indian educator and innovator Sonam Wangchuk from Ladakh. Sonam articulates why and how India should boycott Chinese products in his YouTube video. Sonam calls upon his countrymen to boycott Chinese software within a week and other products within a year. The call had an immediate impact resulting in more than 10 million downloads (in its first week) of an Indian-made app that identifies Chinese apps. Indians from all walks of life pledging their solidarity for the country and the commitment to boycott Chinese products.

India is not the only country  where China is working hard to hurt its relationships. China recently announced 80% tariff on barley imports from Australia after the latter called for an international inquiry on the spread of coronavirus; China imprisoned two Canadians (an ex-diplomat and an entrepreneur) on dubious charges after Canada detained Meng Wangzhou following an extradition request from the United States (Meng is deputy chairwoman and chief financial officer of China’s telecom giant Huawei Board of Directors);  and China is now threatening to punish British bank HSBC and to break commitments to move forward on key infrastructure projects in the United Kingdom unless London allows Huawei to build its 5G network.

There is a clear pattern emerging from China’s increasingly brazen behavior – China is using its state-integrated economic power to divide democratic allies, coerce weaker economies, spread chaos and confusion, and incite distrust of governments in democratic countries. Confronting this pattern calls for an urgent and strong alliance of like-minded countries with the goal of countering Beijing’s economic leverage.

A central feature of the Chinese economy is its network of state-owned companies (SOE). The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) manipulates or directly controls  SOE decision-making to achieve its political and strategic aims. In 2016, President Xi declared that SOEs should ‘become important forces to implement’ the party’s decisions. Company boards are now expected to take guidance from the party committee before making major decisions, and the vast majority of the 119 Chinese companies among the 2019 Fortune Global 500 were SOEs.

CCP’s infiltration is not limited to SOEs in China – the Party has systematically infiltrated China’s expanding private sector with the establishment of new official institutions to internally coordinate CCP affairs, and reward private business elites with appointments to party positions. The controversial tech-giant Huawei is the best example of CCP’s deep infiltration in private companies’ management structure.

Beijing’s complete control over its economic system gives it unmatched leverage in deploying economic coercion tools in the context of its foreign investment. China has applied economic coercion against several countries, none of which had ever done anything beyond standing by their values and defending their national security.

Despite the growing evidence of China’s interference, intrusion, aggression, and coercion, there has been only limited counter-reactions from the international community. While governments may have vested interests and compulsions to ignore the obvious threats posed by China’s behaviour, citizens in democratic countries have the ability and the responsibility to stand in support of human rights as inscribed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The example set by Indian educator Sonam Wangchuk is just one such example. Sonam’s physical presence in Ladakh, and his resolve to inspire change have ignited a movement in a country of 1.3 billion people.

We need more Sonam Wangchuks.  While boycotting all Chinese products may be an overwhelming challenge, a sector-by-sector approach could gain traction as seen with the popular “Boycott Chinese Toys” campaign decades ago.  As part of that effort, we can press our elected representatives to regulate China’s SOEs including the application of penalties for non-compliance with human rights standards.   One thing is clear from past experience – governments will not act unless they are pushed to act by individual citizens like Sonam Wangchuk.  Now is the time for each of us to step up to the challenge.  We must find ways to use our power as individuals in free countries to change the prevailing China policy of appeasement, and to encourage positive change for millions of people living under China’s authority.

 

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