Stephen Harper is in a delicate situation. Let’s give him a hand.
Mr. Harper’s hosts this week is a rising economic superpower that he’s already annoyed in the past with pointed talk of human rights and Tibet. He can’t ignore the imperative of trade with China. But he’s under pressure at home to raise issues like human rights, imprisoned Uighur Husseyin Celil, and China’s veto of a UN resolution on Syria.
How does a prime minister raise topics that offend his hosts when doing more business with them is crucial to Canada’s economy? There’s no Miss Manners guidebook to threading that needle. So as a public service, and with the help of some Canadian experts on China, here’s a handy etiquette guide.
First, remember the point. You want to sell stuff, sure, but when it comes to human rights and issues like Syria, the goal isn’t just to say you’ve raised it, but to influence China. It is, as one expert said, about the faith, not the catechism. No, the Communist Party of China isn’t going to suddenly buckle under and decide you’re right, but it’s a complex country with evolving public opinion and international links.
Second, tone matters. When expressing universal values, it’s best not to sound like you’re going into someone’s house and telling them how to raise their children. Canadians don’t always raise the same issues in say, Saudi Arabia. Beijing is sensitive to signs of respect. Brock University professor Charles Burton says that’s partly because they don’t want foreign leaders making Chinese people feel their country is losing face – which is why public statements matter. But respect and face are culturally important – so tone does, too.
It won’t please everyone. But if Mr. Harper is to stress gains with Beijing without ignoring rights, there are dos and don’ts.
Do: Link Chinese and Canadian cases. China pressed for last year’s extradition of smuggler Lai Changxing, and there will be other such cases. Ottawa is concerned for Canadians like Uighur-Canadian Mr. Celil, convicted of terrorism in a closed trial. Beijing hasn’t accepted that Canadian courts are outside political control, Mr. Burton said. So when they raise the next Mr. Lai, Ottawa should raise Mr. Celil.
Don't: Make the linkage a promise of legal decisions Canada can’t deliver, but rather process and access, like a consular visit to Mr. Celil.
Do: Raise rights in public. The Chinese leadership doesn’t love it, but that’s the point. Without it, Mr. Burton said, Beijing and the Chinese public will assume acceptance.
Don’t: Make Beijing feel compelled to retaliate. That means a respectful tone; concern not accusation. Leave names of Chinese dissidents to private talks, where Mr. Harper can give a list to President Hu Jintao, express concerns and ask for info.
Mr. Burton suggests a public line similar to Jean Chrétien’s: “Canadians are concerned when they hear reports of human-rights abuses in Tibet and Xinjiang and the suppression of religious freedoms of Buddhists and Muslims and Christians.”
Do: Use public opinion. Mr. Harper can point out it is Canadians who have concerns about rights in China. Beijing does care about image. It affects China’s soft power, and can raise political obstacles to initiatives abroad. In private, Mr. Harper could say, “It would be much easier for Canada to deal politically with China if China enjoyed a higher reputation among Canadians.”
Don’t: Raise rights without establishing it’s your business. Referring to things like the UN covenant on rights, which China signed, highlights shared obligations.
Do: Stress the rule of law. Canada has an interest in a more transparent Chinese legal system for business, and Mr. Harper can link it to legal rights for individuals, noting a less arbitrary process reduces public resentment.
Don’t: Insult China’s courts more vigorously than seeking improvement.
Do: Publicly say you raised Canada’s view on Syria with Chinese leaders, as Mr. Harper did.
Don’t: Expect China to accept a (second) UN resolution condemning a regime for crackdowns on protesters. But note it is shaping Western public opinion of China.