When Prime Minister Stephen Harper visits China this week, many Canadians will be wondering how he will deal with the human-rights dimension of the Canada-China relationship.
A recent Asia Pacific Foundation survey of Canadians professionally engaged with Asia found that 72 per cent perceive China’s human-rights record to be “poor.” Many also view Canada’s record of action on human rights in the region to be ineffective, with 62 per cent believing that no real difference was made. Many Canadians believe that serious human-rights problems persist in China and that we need to engage, yet feel uncertain about how to proceed.
China’s performance of international human-rights standards has been conflicted. Beijing has incorporated many of these standards into its constitution and domestic legal system. Yet, persistent and credible reporting on violations continue, particularly in the repression of political dissent, harassment of lawyers and human-rights advocates, and suppression of religion and ethnic minority cultures.
But there are also good news stories on human rights in China. Its recent Human Rights Action Plan commits the government to improving a broad array of human-rights conditions, ranging from economic and social development to political participation. Targeted government policies in health care, poverty alleviation, education and labour relations suggest a broad commitment to improving people’s daily lives. And revisions to China’s tax system reflect the government’s efforts to redress human-rights issues of income disparity.
Like many other countries, China has found that human-rights protection is not a matter of abstract ideals but rather an essential dimension of economic and social development. Canada’s relations with China should proceed from an appreciation of these complexities.
Mindful of the contradictions in China’s human-rights performance, our engagement with Beijing should appreciate that human-rights issues are inseparable from economic and trade relations. Recalling that human rights include social, economic and cultural rights as well as political and civil rights, we should acknowledge that economic relations and human rights are mutually supportive dimensions of our mature relationship with China. Human-rights standards on labour relations, health care and sustainable development, for example, have a direct impact on productivity and hence on economic and trade ties. Similarly, trade standards on transparency and the rule of law support not only trade relations but more open and inclusive civil and political relationships generally.
Canada should emphasize the importance of China’s performance of its domestic and international legal obligations that support both human rights and trade. Mindful that a government that sidesteps its own laws in attacking lawyers and writers who stray from official orthodoxy may also be tempted to ignore local and international legal standards on trade, we should continue to emphasize legal compliance. This is not about preaching “Western values” but about encouraging compliance with China’s own laws and international obligations. Canada can constructively encourage Chinese leaders to promote compliance with China’s domestic laws and international commitments that require human-rights protection while also supporting economic and trade relations.
Of course, there are human-rights issues such as political expression and religious freedom where sensitivities may inhibit free discussion. But it would not be unreasonable to suggest that more open debates about governance in China can work not only to satisfy civil and political rights standards but also promote better policy-making, while more openness on issues of religious belief and practice can support China’s stated goals of social harmony.
Building a mature relationship with China is in Canada’s interest. Such a relationship depends on China’s compliance with its own laws and treaty commitments that promote economic and trade co-operation together with human-rights protection. The Prime Minister should encourage an integrated approach to trade and human rights to further human-rights protection while also promoting economic and trade relations.
Pitman Potter is a professor of law at the University of British Columbia and HSBC Chair in Asian Research at UBC’s Institute of Asian Research. He is also a senior fellow with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.