Role reversal: China cites human rights in spat with Canada

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Meng Wanzhou, CFO of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, is shown arriving at a parole office in Vancouver on Dec. 12. Her arrest at the request of the U.S. officials has strained Canada-Chinese relations.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

David Webster, Bishop’s University

When China’s government recently protested the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, it used something rarely heard from Beijing — the language of individual human rights.

“The detention without giving any reason violates a person’s human rights,” a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said.

In using this sort of “rights talk,” China is not simply jumping on the fact that Meng was in detention on the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The arrest of Meng — done at the request of the U.S. government on allegations she violated American trade sanctions on Iran — has put a strain on Canada-China relations and has resulted in two Canadians being detained in China.

But the incident has also revealed the Chinese government’s efforts to reshape the way human rights are talked about, and conceived, globally. Those efforts have been remarkably successful — partly due to their acceptance by Western governments, including Canada.

Until 1997, China was regularly called on the carpet at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now rebranded and upgraded as the Human Rights Council). Regular motions critical of China’s human rights record tended to centre on individual rights cases, while also making reference to the situation in Tibet.

Fearful of condemnation by a UN body, China was forced to resort to a procedure used by no other country: a counter-resolution calling for the CHR to take “no action” on human rights in China. Though China had the votes to get its way, the motions kept the pressure on. Chinese authorities felt this pressure keenly because it came from multiple channels, in an open forum protected by the UN system.

Keen for trade

That began to change as China’s economic power grew. Western governments were ever more keen to trade with China, and quite willing to lower the volume on human rights advocacy to reach that goal.

In 1996, Australia announced it would no longer co-sponsor resolutions critical of China (at the time not yet, as it is now, Australia’s top trading partner). It intended, instead, to open a “bilateral dialogue” on human rights.

A retrospective Australian government publication hailed the shift as more likely to get results, arguing that “non-confrontational, co-operative dialogue is the most effective way to address the human rights situation.”




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Seventy years of international human rights


Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain followed suit the next year. Each government couched the shift to bilateral dialogues on human rights as a positive step from “confrontation” to “co-operation.” Yet dialogues are conducted behind closed doors, without open records, and with no measurable benchmarks of success.

Above all, these dialogues are disproportional. When China was poorer, as it was through most of the 20th century, its government resented being bullied by powerful Western governments. There is no longer any bullying China in the 21st century. It takes a host of Western or Southern states to match China’s size and economic power.

By pursuing one-on-one dialogues with smaller countries, China was able not only to take human rights from public to private forums, but also to make sure it was the more powerful state in the room.

So why did half a dozen countries — soon joined by others — break ranks and stampede to the new bilateral dialogue tactic? Long-held dreams of tapping the “China market,” which had beckoned Canadians for generations, were in play.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is greeted by Chinese President Xi Jinping during the official welcome at the G20 Leaders Summit in Hangzhou, China in September 2016.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

For centuries, European and North American merchants had longed to open China’s doors and sell to its vast consumer base. The 1990s saw an East Asian “economic miracle” that bedazzled businesses and governments alike. Like Australia, Canada stood at the forefront of governments hoping to harness a menagerie of “little tigers,” “rising dragons,” “flying geese” and so on to boost their own prosperity.

China dwarfed the other Asian countries in scale and in market potential. Western business and government leaders were positively giddy over the prospects.

Human rights linkage abandoned

Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government was keen, but insisted trade should be partially linked with human rights. That linkage was abandoned under Mulroney’s successor, Jean Chrétien.

The leading symbol of Canada’s shift was Chrétien’s “Team Canada” trade missions, huge assemblages of politicians and corporate bosses that touched down, especially in Asian capitals, to do business.

Chrétien employed the same language of constructive engagement that Australian leaders had used. “Isolation is the worst recipe, in my judgment, for curing human-rights problems,” Chretien said during one Team Canada mission in Indonesia.

Chrétien was borrowing language on human rights developed by Asian dictatorships. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gained Canadian support for their conception of “constructive engagement” with human rights violators, a policy designed to justify deepening relations with Myanmar, then Burma.

ASEAN governments claimed that greater freedoms would come through bringing Burma into the international community, not isolating it. A related case came from Western universities, where several scholars were embracing “Lipset’s law,” a theory that greater wealth leads to more political freedoms.

‘Mutually reinforcing’

Chrétien’s second foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, accepted that argument, arguing that human rights could best be promoted through what he called “active engagement and dialogue.” Trade and rights, Axworthy insisted, were “mutually reinforcing.” Good governance, including respect for rights and the rule of law, made growth possible, and growth made stable rights-respecting societies more likely. Here was Lipset’s law, recast as government policy.

The upshot was Axworthy’s decision to stop criticizing China’s human rights record in public, and turn instead to a bilateral human rights dialogue.

As rights groups assailed the Chrétien government’s decision to put trade ahead of human rights, the dialogue provided a way to perform human rights advocacy that was acceptable to China’s government, and thus would not jeopardize Canadian hopes for more trade with China.

A series of dialogue sessions took place until campaigning by Canadian rights activists made them a lightning rod for protest. When Stephen Harper came to power, he suspended the dialogues, never to be resumed.

Yet Conservative policy towards China descended into incoherence, then came full circle until one of his foreign ministers felt able to describe China as a Canadian “ally.” Justin Trudeau’s government has sought more trade with China and in 2016 established an annual leader’s dialogue between Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping that includes but does not stress human rights.

Trudeau leaves the stage beside Chinese President Xi Jinping following the APEC meeting Papau New Guinea in November 2018.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

China’s ability to reshape human rights pressure into quiet dialogue, and then to make human rights simply one aspect of a wider dialogue process, mirrors a shift from denial that major abuses were taking place to insistence that although rights were indeed universal, they were best promoted through dialogue.

Since it suited their own economic interests and ideologies, Western governments came to accept the Chinese case in the 1990s, and embrace it entirely today.

China changed the norms

As a result, China has managed to change international human rights norms, rather than being changed by them.

It was able to convince the UN Sub-commission on Human Rights to endorse “constructive dialogues.” It can exclude critical activists from UN forums and weaken aspects of the UN human rights system. And this year, a Chinese resolution calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” in UN human rights mechanisms passed 28-1, despite warnings that it would “entrench impunity for human rights violations.”

Human Rights Watch fears that China is remaking the UN’s human rights systems in ways that will leave victims facing “almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable.”

China is influential, but would not have succeeded in changing the UN human rights system to this extent without quiet consent from countries who wanted to trade with it.

That consent has come because human rights almost always take a back seat to economics. Trade is integrated into most foreign ministries, while human rights remains an “optional extra.”

Canada’s current Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland insists that Canada is a “rule-of-law country,” but Canada remains hampered by its willingness to sideline human rights in relations with China, and to marginalize rights in its overall foreign policy.The Conversation

David Webster, Associate Professor of History, Bishop’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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The English-Canadian media’s selective outrage on bilingualism

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Québec Premier Francois Legault, left, exchanges hockey jerseys with Ontario Premier Doug Ford at Queens Park, in Toronto on Nov. 19, 2018. Ford’s recent cuts to francophone services in Ontario haven’t spawned nearly the media outrage that Québec language moves have.
(THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young)

David Webster, Bishop’s University

Don’t get me wrong: It’s always nice to see folks in Ontario and the rest of English-speaking Canada say a few words in support of the English-speaking minority here in Québec.

But there are far more endangered, far more precarious, French-speaking minorities in Ontario, New Brunswick, Saskatchewan and all nine majority-English provinces. In fact, those minority groups — English-speaking in Québec and French-speaking in the rest of Canada — are what make this country what it is.

There is a huge amount of work still to do on recognizing Indigenous rights and fostering Indigenous languages, of course. Important work is happening on that front, though the country has a long way to go. Maybe it’s time to declare Indigenous languages to be official languages.

In the meantime, however, it’s worth protecting the minority official language communities. But to read leading English-Canadian media, you would think that only one of those communities — Québec’s anglophones — were under threat.

Take the Globe and Mail, the country’s national newspaper. When Ontario Premier Doug Ford recently slashed services to Ontario francophones and axed plans for the province’s first French-language university, the Globe ran a total of five articles by Nov. 21, according to a search of the Canadian Newsstream database.

The Buonanotte restaurant, at the heart of the ‘pastagate’ uproar, is shown in Montréal in February 2013.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

As La Presse columnist Patrick Lagacé wrote — in English – that’s barely a fraction of the coverage given to the silliness of the “pastagate” story in 2013, in which an inspector from Québec’s French-language watchdog criticized the use of the word “pasta” in a Montréal restaurant (the watchdog quickly backed down and changed its rules). Canadian Newsstream finds 12 articles in the Globe on “pastagate.”

The Globe also issued a stern editorial against a Parti Québécois motion in Québec’s National Assembly that criticized the ubiquitous greeting “bonjour-hi.”

The motion was misplaced, but was non-binding and has changed nothing. Was it really — as the Globe editorialized — a call for the word “hi” to be “killed with fire, its ashes buried in lye and the location forgotten?”

One op-ed in support of Ford’s cuts

This sort of hyperbole is too common in the English-Canadian press. The Globe has so far issued no editorials against the Ford cuts to francophone services — though it did run an opinion piece in support of Ford’s move written by the president of Trent University.

The Globe, of course, should not be singled out. A Postmedia editorial published in the Ottawa Citizen and other newspapers, called the loss of the position of French Language Services Commissioner “unfortunate” in the eighth paragraph of a nine-paragraph editorial.

Otherwise, the newspaper database finds no editorial comment of any sort — let alone the sort of scathing denunciation that descends when Québec’s language laws make headlines in English. “Pastagate” was mentioned 311 times in the Canadian Newsstream index in 2013, the year it made headlines; Ontario francophone services rate 96 mentions since Ford’s cuts were announced.

In some ways, Québec language policy serves as an “external enemy” for English-speaking media. Mocking the periodic outbreaks of Québec language-law foolishness sells papers — or in digital terms, poking fun at pastagate is great clickbait. Criticizing the powerful in Ontario when they attack minorities does not produce the same results.

Québec’s anglophone community has chided Ford. The English-language Montreal Gazette criticized the francophone services cuts. The Townshippers’ Association, a group of anglophones in the Eastern Townships region of Québec south of Montréal, pointed out that the cuts were “a significant setback for the development and vitality not only of Franco-Ontarians, but for minority language communities across the country as well.”

Anglophone universities in Québec

Let’s not forget, however, that Québec’s anglophone community has spawned three universities, and that the Québec government has made no moves to shut down these minority-language universities — in fact, a revision to Québec’s university funding formula this year helped Bishop’s University in the Eastern Townships, where I teach history, more than any other institution in Québec.

Outside Québec, there is only one full French-language university, in Moncton, N.B. (A few French-language colleges exist inside English-language universities or in affiliation with colleges, and there are a handful of bilingual institutions.)

Québec’s anglophones have fought to protect their institutions. When the previous government led by Philippe Couillard announced plans to amalgamate school boards, the English-speaking community mobilized to save English-language school boards, successfully. It may need to fight the same battle in the face of renewed plans by the new government under François Legault to shutter local school boards.

Protecting recent gains

Given this history, it’s no surprise that the Townshippers’ Association announced its “solidarity with our French-speaking counterparts in Ontario” as they mobilize to defend their own institutions and protect recent gains.

The Ford government’s cuts are not primarily about money, as a recent article by French-speaking university professors points out. Fiscal arguments are a “smokescreen” for a rejection of the very concept of minority rights. (To its credit, the Globe reprinted a translated version on Nov. 21.)

This is part of a renewed attack on the French in Canada by the rising populist right, exemplified by Ford’s Ontario government and the New Brunswick’s People’s Alliance, which props up the incoming New Brunswick Conservative government.

Anti-Francophone sentiment is nothing new in Canada, as University of Guelph historian Matthew Hayday has written.

But it seems to be on the rise — and that will only empower those in Québec, chastened by recent declines in their public support, who might want to crack down on the anglophone minority.The Conversation

David Webster, Associate Professor of History, Bishop’s University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.