Promoting Human Rights in China

Stephen Harper’s upcoming visit to China in December represents an attempt by the Conservative government to thaw our chilly relationship with that country. China is an important trade partner for Canada and it is high time for the Prime Minister to visit the world’s fastest growing economy, especially in these economically precarious times. That being said, the Prime Minister should be sure to keep a balance between trade interests and human rights. He has thus far done a good job of promoting Canada’s ideals of human rights, especially in relation to China. Hopefully, his upcoming visit will not break that pattern.

Canada and China have had significant trade links for some time. China is the third biggest purchaser of Canadian exports. Anyone who has ever bought anything in Canada and glanced at the sticker on the bottom knows of the prevalence of Chinese made goods in this country. Trade links between the two countries are even more crucial right now due to the economic crisis.

Our relationship with China does not only hinge on the success and profitability of our trading relationship, it also depends on China’s human rights record. On this matter, the Harper government’s stance has been both consistent and admirable. Before coming to office, the Conservatives frequently criticized the then Liberal government for its lax stance on human rights abuse in China. In 2006, the new Conservative government was quick to criticize the Chinese government for its treatment of people like Huseyin Celil, a Uighur-Canadian who was convicted of terrorism charges in a closed-door trial. In 2007, Harper ignored Chinese threats and chose to meet with the Dalai Lama, who the Chinese view as a Tibetan separatist and a public enemy.

Unfortunately, the Harper government’s stance on human rights issues in China seems to be softening a little. In recent months, three members of Harper’s cabinet; Laurence Cannon, Jim Flaherty, and Stockwell Day have made ministerial visits to China. The language of the Harper government has relaxed as of late, with Harper recently stating that “Canada is committed to a strong relationship with China that reflects our mutual respect and the need for practical co-operation.” The issue of human rights is noticeably absent from this statement.

While the harsh economic climate is undoubtedly what has pushed issues like human rights to the periphery, this should not be the case. Canada is a country with a reputation for respecting human rights. We should expect our leaders to value human rights, and promote them on the international scene, regardless of the economic climate of the day.
Good relations with China are important, but not as important as our national values and ideals. Hopefully, Harper and his government can maintain their traditionally admirable stance on the issue of human rights in China. In 2006, Harper promised that he would not remain silent on human rights issues in China and “sell out to the almighty dollar.” His upcoming trip to China is certainly a great opportunity to keep that promise.

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