Last week Prime Minister Paul Martin rolled out the red carpet for a state visit from Chinese President Hu Jintao. The pomp and ceremony is justified when you consider that China is Canada’s second-largest trading partner after the U.S. and the world’s largest developing market. The focus of their meetings was on increasing trade between Canada and China, and they pledged to more than double trade between the two countries to $60 billion within five years.
But every time the Chinese leader visits a democratic country there’s another issue that’s forced onto the agenda, not by the host government but by the population. That issue is freedom and human rights for China’s 1.3 billion people. Members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement joined with advocates for a free Tibet and other human rights activists to protest the visit and to draw attention to China’s record of political and religious repression and human rights abuses. These demonstrations always seem to embarrass the host government, and while it’s understandable that Martin would want the first visit by a Chinese leader in eight years to go smoothly, the truth is undeniable.
China remains a one-party state where criticizing the government can land you in prison, where religious denominations are either tightly controlled or banned outright and where millions of prisoners toil in labor camps far from the scrutiny of a free press or foreign observers. The Chinese government routinely uses access to its market and the prospect of government contracts to pressure other countries into toeing the line on Taiwan for example, and to ignore their treatment of ethnic minorities and their human rights record in general.
And it’s not just foreign governments. Large corporations often pressure their governments into signing deals that are against the interests of their own people. Canada’s decision to sell nuclear reactors to the Chinese government is one of the most appallingly irresponsible acts in the history of this country, and combined with the U.S. government’s decision to sell them advanced rocket guidance systems during the Clinton Administration, resulted in nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at the population centers of North American cities.
Other corporations help the Chinese government to suppress their own peoples’ freedom of speech. Jerry Yang, co-founder of Yahoo Inc., acknowledged over the weekend that his company gave information to Beijing that helped them trace an email sent by Chinese journalist Shi Tao to a human rights website in New York, earning him a ten-year jail sentence as a result. “I do not like the outcome of what happens with these things,” Yang said, “but we get a lot of these orders every day.”
Microsoft and Google have also come under scrutiny for agreeing to ban certain political issues from the search engines, webpages and blogs they host. Cisco Systems has provided the Chinese government with equipment that can automatically block certain words and phrases, like “democracy” or “human rights”. The very companies that love to portray themselves as driving the unfettered movement of information are all too willing to sacrifice their supposed principles in order to do business in China.
While concessions to the Chinese leadership may benefit businesses and governments in the short term, these kinds of decisions have a way of backfiring later on. The United States Government’s support for anticommunist dictators in South America during the Cold War earned them the mistrust and contempt of their suffering peoples that continues to this day.
Conversely, Eastern Europeans are very grateful to the United States for choosing the people over the political leaders, and this gratitude translates into economic and diplomatic cooperation.
Even in totalitarian countries where people cannot speak their minds for fear of arrest and torture, they know who is on the side of the oppressor and who is on the side of the oppressed, and they don’t forget which is which when they finally earn their freedom.
Western countries and companies mustn’t collude with the Chinese government to suppress human rights and freedom of speech in China, because it’s a hypocritical betrayal of the values we consider essential to our own wellbeing. But it’s also politically and economically imprudent in the long term. People with a 4000-year-old civilization can be expected to have long memories.
Neglected story of the week: Nearly all the coverage of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s landslide reelection has focused on the fact that he continues to support the Iraq campaign and the opposition party did not. But the real story here is that he ran probably the gutsiest campaign in Japan’s democratic history, and the results of his win will change the country profoundly. He made the decision to dissolve a majority government he led in order to run on the most ambitious set of reforms any leader had ever dared propose.
The huge 70 per cent turnout rate for the election and his coalition’s two-thirds majority in the House of Representatives gives Koizumi a mandate to reform Japan’s sclerotic banking system and old-boys’-club financial sector so that the country can finally begin to grow economically for the first time in over a decade.
His reform-oriented victory might also help Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany’s general election this weekend, who are running to reform the other “weakest strong economy” in the developed world with similar proposals.