On Feb. 12, Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chrétien stood before an undoubtedly nervous group of aspiring Chinese judges. The figure before them was the head of state of one of the most peaceful and just nations in the world, and these judges were no doubt expecting a lecture condemning their own government for being the opposite: barbaric, undemocratic and among the worst human-rights abusers in the world.
However, instead of a tongue-lashing, the Chinese audience heard the following:
"The Canadian government and the Canadian people do not pretend to have all the solutions [to human-rights abuses], but we are prepared to continue our exchanges and share our experiences and expertise with you, if you deem it of assistance."
Fittingly, Chrétien should have then apologized for "wasting the audience's time" and hung his head meekly until dismissed.
Chrétien's limp-wristed denouncement of Chinese human rights abuses is beneath the elected head of state of a country "renowned" for its peaceful nature, democratic ideals and widespread condemnation of injustice. The statement "...if you deem it of assistance" completely let the Chinese government off the hook. He might as well have said, "Human rights abuse is wrong... at least, I think so. Um... we could be mistaken. Do what you think is best."
The Chinese government is so synonymous with human rights violations that it barely necessitates elaboration. However, according to Amnesty International, the Chinese government is now worse than ever.
"1999 saw the most serious and wide-ranging crackdown on peaceful dissent in China for a decade," reads AI's annual report on the country. "Thousands of people were arbitrarily detained for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association or religion. Some were sentenced to long prison terms under draconian national security legislation and after unfair trials; others were assigned without trial to up to three years' detention in 're-education through labour' camps. Torture and ill-treatment of prisoners were widespread. Thousands of people were sentenced to death and many executed. In the autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang those suspected of nationalist activities or sympathies continued to be the targets of particularly harsh repression."
Doesn't Chrétien think what goes on in China is wrong? Don't the vast majority of Canadians think what goes on in China is wrong? If so, how are meek semi-denunciations such as the one Chrétien squeaked out going to change a government's behaviour? More importantly, how does one change a country's behaviour while simultaneously expanding one's business dealings with them at exponential rates?
This last point begs the question: does Chrétien even want to see an end to human rights abuses in China? Isn't it more likely he'd prefer to see Canadian goods in lucrative Chinese markets?
The fact is, to do business with the current Chinese regime is to abet them in their crimes. Perhaps it's time to reopen the debate on our policy of "constructive engagement" with countries like China and Indonesia. Oppression is a costly business and foreign trade not only helps to legitimize the regime in the eyes of its people, it gives that government more money to continue to oppress those who oppose them.
Canadians profess to hold democracy and justice above all else. Jean Chrétien this week dismissed these ideals on a world stage. If we tolerate the sort of heresy we witnessed from none other than our elected leader, are we not hypocrites as well?