Ever since adherents of Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned as a cult in China, began a silent protest vigil outside the Chinese consulate in Vancouver in 2001, it was little secret that diplomats from the communist power weren't amused by the group's presence.
When the protesters erected a wooden shack to shield them from the elements during their round-the-clock remonstration, the protest camp became an even bigger embarrassment for Chinese officials stationed in the city.
In 2006, then-mayor Sam Sullivan decided that the shack and banners had to go because they contravened local ordinances. Naturally, the matter ended up in court. The B.C. Supreme Court upheld Vancouver's decision in 2009 (and the hut was dismantled), but, in October of 2010, the B.C. Court of Appeal reversed the ruling on the grounds that the city's bylaw was unconstitutional. The court gave the city six months (with April 19 as the deadline) to rewrite the bylaw.
Which brings us to the developments of recent days.
Last week, city staff presented Vancouver City Council with a new draft bylaw that would bar political protest structures in residential areas - site of the Chinese consulate - but would allow them in commercial and business zones. The draft ordinance also proposed charging licensing fees for those who wished to erect political protest structures.
Mayor Gregor Robertson, uncomfortable with the plan to levy fees and with wording he feels could lead to the eviction of the homeless from certain locations, asked staff to take another run at the bylaw. A revised version is expected to be debated next week.
While the proposed bylaw has ignited a free-speech debate, it's the Chinese government's involvement in the process that has some people even more upset. Count me among them.
As it turns out, Chinese diplomats in Vancouver were consulted on the proposed new bylaw, allegedly on the grounds that they are a "stakeholder." Consulted how? What was said? Apparently, we'll never know. City manager Penny Ballem says those discussions are confidential.
Since then, Vancouver's Chinese consulate-general made a rare public comment, debunking suggestions it pressed for changes to the bylaw - a proposition dismissed as "impossible" by Chen Yonglin, a former Chinese diplomat who had defected to Australia in 2005.
The consulate also posted comments denouncing Falun Gong, adding: "It is the responsibility of each municipality to run the city according to the law." Yes, please tell us how to govern our country.
Falun Gong may be viewed as a nuisance by some, but the principles that underlie the group's right to dissent are sacred in this country. And the last people with whom we should be consulting on this matter are representatives of a government that regards human rights and personal freedoms with such contempt.
As Pete McMartin so aptly put it in The Vancouver Sun the other day, "The Chinese government is not a 'stakeholder' in anything in this city, especially when it comes to making law." And especially, I would add, when it comes to laws involving freedom of speech.
China, you may recall, is a country that locks up people who want the same freedoms many of the rest of us enjoy. In fact, Chinese authorities have recently detained dozens of so-called dissidents, human-rights lawyers and even bloggers amid signs that a renewed pro-democracy movement is stirring in the country. One can only imagine what they would do with a protest hut on a Beijing street and anyone found inside it.
The Chinese consulate says the Falun Gong hut "interfered with the safety and convenience of pedestrians," "negatively affected the scenic view of the city," and "created a lot of noise" in a residential neighbourhood. It did none of those things.
Still, I think introducing a ban on permanent protest structures in residential areas probably makes sense. Otherwise, innocent parties could be negatively affected.
Ultimately, the new bylaw won't restrict the right to protest in front of places such as the Chinese consulate, regardless of where it's situated; it would just restrict the right to establish a permanent presence on nearby property. That seems fair. And we shouldn't care one whit what the Chinese government thinks.