As Prime Minister Trudeau undertakes his first visit to China as prime minister, the hopes and expectations are considerable. Despite years of deepening international engagement, the human rights situation in China has deteriorated substantially in recent years, as has the Chinese government’s defiance in the face of international pressure to turn that around.

In other trips over the years by Liberal and Conservative leaders alike, there has been ample space for frank discussion on trade, investment, immigration and, on occasion, panda bears. The attention given to human rights, however, has generally been much less impressive. Despite China’s glaring shortcomings, across a wide array of human rights concerns, those are precisely the cases and issues that have always taken a back seat.

Too sensitive. Too controversial. Too soon. Too embarrassing.

The Prime Minister faces a tremendous opening and a considerable test. Will he take a meaningful step in laying the groundwork for an open and durable dialogue on concerns related to human rights?

With this visit, which includes bilateral meetings with Chinese officials, a meeting with President Xi Jinping and attendance at the G20 Summit, it’s been widely reported that Trudeau is signalling his intention to open a new chapter in relations with China. Such an overture occurs at a critical time in China as it continues to ascend in global stature despite a stunning list of human rights challenges at home. Those challenges include overwhelming levels of arbitrary imprisonment, the suppression of dissent, the persecution of minorities, widespread torture, untold numbers of executions (the most in the world) and many other grim injustices.

Many of the most pressing challenges for Canada to address in this trip to China were outlined in an open letter from the Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China, a group of 15 Canadian organizations including Amnesty International that has called on the Prime Minister to press human rights during his trip.

In our view, if Trudeau does aim to refresh Canada’s relationship with China, the starting point must be to finally develop a comprehensive strategy for strengthening human rights protection in that country. Moreover, that strategy must encompass the full scope of the bilateral relationship with the goal of ensuring human rights are addressed in all areas of cooperation, from trade and investment to immigration and consular affairs. Making progress on human rights in our China relationship cannot be the responsibility of our diplomats alone.

The human rights agenda is lengthy and the necessary reforms run deep. There are at least five areas that should be top of mind for the Prime Minister during his visit.

Canadians should be clear with their Chinese counterparts this week that any future trade talks would have to take account of human rights.

As a first step, on trade, Canada should start by matching its widely reported objective of eventually engaging Beijing in free trade negotiations with a firm commitment to human rights throughout that process. That would include conducting a human rights assessment on the impact of any eventual pact, and a commitment to address all concerns uncovered in the assessment before a deal is ratified. More immediately, Canadians should be clear with their Chinese counterparts this week that any future trade talks would have to take account of human rights.

Second, Canada must raise the glaring issue of widespread illegal imprisonment in China, where untold thousands of people are unjustly detained, deprived of access to due process and placed at risk of torture and other abuses. Amnesty International and its coalition partners have compiled a list of 13 individual cases that are emblematic of far wider patterns of persecution in China. For the Prime Minister’s particular attention, there are also at least 17 cases of individuals being unjustly held in China who are Canadian citizens, are immediate family of Canadian citizens or have other close Canadian connections. Canada is duty-bound to press forcefully for their release and for the protection of their rights more broadly.

Chinese laws facilitate continued and massive crackdowns against human rights lawyers, human rights defenders and other civil society activists.

Third, Trudeau must raise the issue of recently drafted or enacted national security laws in China that present grave danger to human rights advocates. When people are targeted because they stand up for the rights of others, the human rights of people everywhere in China are imperiled. Vague and unsubstantiated charges such as ‚Äúsubversion of state,‚ÄĚ ‚Äúendangering state security‚ÄĚ or ‚Äúmischief and picking quarrels‚ÄĚ are commonplace in China. These laws facilitate continued and massive crackdowns against human rights lawyers, human rights defenders and other civil society activists. Canada must press China to repeal and reform laws that are used to target human rights defenders.

Fourth, Justin Trudeau must challenge Chinese authorities on their brutal persecution of minorities. The country’s 17-year oppression and imprisonment of Falun Gong practitioners, including at least 12 with family members in Canada, is one stark example. For Tibetans, China’s partial demolition of the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute and targeting of students from the Tibet Autonomous Region for eviction from that facility are the latest examples of the unrelenting campaign against the Tibetan people. Similarly, in western China there is no end to abuses against Uyghurs. Canada must bring its experience as a multicultural society to the fore and be even more adamant in demanding that these campaigns of persecution and violence end.

Finally, there are particularly timely and worrying concerns with respect to Hong Kong. Men and women who press for Hong Kong‚Äôs ‚Äúone country, two systems‚ÄĚ understanding to be protected are at growing risk. China‚Äôs rendition and detention of five staff from Hong Kong‚Äôs Causeway Bay Books store is a particularly serious breach. Moves by Beijing to vet and deny some candidates the right to stand for Hong Kong‚Äôs Legislative Council elections because of their views on independence violate rights to freedom of opinion and expression. Other concerns include prohibiting discussion of independence in Hong Kong schools and refusing to recognize the Canadian passports of Hong Kong Chinese who have citizenship here. The Prime Minister must make it clear that China‚Äôs broken promises to uphold human rights in Hong Kong are unacceptable.

Justin Trudeau must give these pressing human rights cases and concerns the full attention they deserve. Beijing frequently bristles when it perceives it is being singled out for human rights criticisms. But the tone and tenor of the exchanges need not be dominated by finger-wagging and name-calling. It is about setting clear expectations and opening up channels for frank and open exchanges, for example by establishing human rights as a fixed agenda point in the annual meetings Canadian officials are reportedly seeking to establish with China.

The message is that human rights must be at the core of the Canada-China relationship because that is true to values of human dignity that the international community, including China, has embraced through universal United Nations standards. It is time to make it clear as well, however, that the benefits of upholding human rights, such as increased international goodwill and reduced domestic turmoil, resonate across all aspects of our bilateral relationship and impact China’s standing on the world stage.

Photo: Adrian Wyld / The Canadian Press

This article is part of the Canada-China Relations Special Feature.


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