Blame Canada

Why did Canada and the EU abandon Chen Guangcheng? (Hint: Pandas ain't free.)

Diego Azubel - PoolGetty Images
Diego Azubel - PoolGetty Images

In December 2010, a trio of Western diplomats stationed in China — one each from Canada, Switzerland, and the European Union — drove from Beijing to the village of Dongshigu, eight hours away in Shandong province, hoping to visit the detained dissident Chen Guangcheng.

No one has spoken publicly about what happened next. They did not mention the excursion itself, and certainly not the rough reception they received from the hands of the guards who prevented them from seeing Chen. But one person with knowledge of the incident used the words “roughed up;” another said the diplomats had been “threatened” by “thugs.” All three embassies declined to comment about what had happened in Dongshigu.

Intimidating diplomats violates the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which asserts diplomats have freedom of movement within a host country, unless there’s a national security reason to deny it. It’s also a breach of the informal rule against threatening a foreign country’s emissaries. But the governments decided it was better to complain in private to Beijing; at least two of the governments coordinated their response to Beijing about the incident. The Chinese Communist Party, after all, bristles when foreign countries embarrass it in public by raising issues it declares “sensitive,” such as its treatment of political dissidents or ethnic minorities.  

U.S. President Barack Obama also went strangely silent when first asked to publicly comment on the Chen case in early May of this year, taking pains not to use the name of the blind lawyer who his government was already shielding. But at least the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, acting with the Obama administration’s backing, had already decided to do something — incurring Chinese ire by sending a car to collect Chen from those who had helped him escape Dongshigu, whisking him inside the embassy’s fortress-like walls.

The Obama administration later took heavy criticism when Chen left the embassy, under an arrangement he soon regretted. After two weeks of waiting, Chen said Wednesday that he and his family have finally filled out their application forms to receive Chinese passports and that he expects to have permission to travel by the end of the month. If the Chinese don’t honor the deal that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arranged while in Beijing — which would see Chen leave China to attend university in the United States — the attacks will intensify.

These are arguably valid criticisms, particularly if Chen and his family somehow end up in in a more dangerous place than when he first sought American protection. And, arguably, other Chinese human rights activists have found themselves in trouble particularly because of American attention. But at least Washington remains willing to challenge the Chinese leadership about specific human rights cases. Few other countries do anymore. While Switzerland and the EU have both dialed down their public human rights pressure on China over the past few years, it is Canada which has taken the greatest step backwards in Beijing.

Canada used to be one of the most outspoken critics of China’s human rights abuses. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered office in 2006, he famously said that Canadians didn’t want him to “sell out important Canadian values — our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights” in dealings with China, as this was far more important than “the almighty dollar.” Harper skipped the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which some interpreted as a criticism of China’s human rights records. Two years earlier, he infuriated Beijing by bestowing honorary Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama. 

But three years ago, the public support stopped. “The enduring effort to change China must be replaced by working with China and living with China,” Paul Evans, the director of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think-tank funded by the Canadian government to produce policy advice, said in the fall of 2010 on the 40th anniversary of Canada-China relations. Speaking privately to China’s rulers about human rights concerns — rather than airing out grievances in public — allows a smaller country like Canada to wield more influence in Beijing, and increase its chances that someone might actually listen. Or at least that’s how the new theory went. And with prickly political issues pushed to the sidelines, everybody could focus in the meantime on expanding the trade relationship. But critics say Canada has done precisely what Harper once swore not to: sold “Canadian values” for better trade ties. If Harper mentions the cases of human rights activists only privately, the Chinese don’t see Canada as a supporter for their case. And that distinction matters.

Since Harper switched strategies, trade between Canada and China has grown to $65 billion in 2011, up 29 percent from 2009. During Harper’s visit to China in February, his second in three years, he signed trade deals worth up to $3 billion more — and, in a centuries-old gesture of China’s goodwill, Canada was finally loaned a pair of pandas, after three decades of asking. Harper claimed he raised specific cases during a private meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao earlier in the visit. But at a press conference held outside the panda enclosure in Chongqing on the last day of his trip, Harper awkwardly avoided uttering the name Liu Xiaobo — even when asked a direct question about the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

But if speaking softly is the new policy for dealing with China’s troubling human rights record, why the run to Dongshigu? The diplomats must have known they would be prevented from entering Chen’s house. Plenty of evidence existed online about the kind of reception they were sure to receive. The Dongshigu thugs had beaten Chinese human rights activists who tried to visit the blind lawyer. Practically every major Western newspaper had reported on the security forces guarding Chen, and the treatment they doled out to visitors. Foreign television correspondents had been chased away while their cameras rolled. Different-colored diplomatic passports were not the key to breaking Chen’s forced isolation.

Of the dozens of dissidents and journalists who attempted to see Chen, many did so knowing that it was highly unlikely they would be able to break through the security cordon around Dongshigu, and indeed, no credible cases have surfaced of any who had been able to see him. Many made the effort, as actor Christian Bale did later, purely to raise the profile of the case, to tell both the local authorities and central government in Beijing that the world cared about what happened to Chen. They may have failed to win his release, but they put evidence of Chen’s detention before the international public and raised his profile among China’s hundreds of millions of Internet users, some of whom now see Chen as a full-fledged folk hero.

So what did three diplomats staying silent about their attack at Dongshigu accomplish? If Canada, Switzerland, and the EU simply wanted to add Chen’s case to the laundry list of human-rights cases they claim they raise whenever they sit down with China’s leaders, they could have done so based on the testimonials of the Chinese activists and foreign journalists who tried and failed to visit him. Maybe the diplomats were trying — unsuccessfully, it appears — to draw their bosses’ attention to Chen’s plight. Foreign embassies exist not only to interact with the host government, but with the people of that country; and their cowardice has now won them few fans among the countless millions of Chinese who see Chen as a beacon of freedom.

When I called Chen Guangcheng the day after he was moved from the U.S. Embassy to the Chaoyang Hospital in east Beijing (where he remains today), I asked him if there was any time during his flight from Dongshigu that he considered taking shelter at the Canadian Embassy, or perhaps another diplomatic mission in Beijing. “No,” he responded over the crackling mobile phone line.

“The American Embassy represents the principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights that are the pillars of their country. On these aspects, other countries are maybe not as good.”

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