Skip to main content

Human-rights activists say Prime Minister Jean Chrétien dilutes his message on human rights in China when he says Canada is a small country that really can't influence the leadership of a country of more than a billion.

Activists compare Mr. Chrétien's timidity in Beijing this week with Bill Clinton's 1998 China tour, during which the then U.S. president never missed an opportunity to tell the Chinese leaders to their faces that they needed to improve their rights record.

In a speech at the Chinese National Judges College yesterday, Mr. Chrétien said the rule of law must apply equally to all citizens. Foreign Affairs Minister John Manley and Liberal government spinners heralded the speech as an important statement on human rights.

Indeed, yesterday's speech is progress since Mr. Chrétien's first official visit to China in 1994, when rights issues were all but ignored, says Alex Neve, the Secretary General of the Canadian section of Amnesty International.

But Mr. Chrétien could have been more explicit about the kinds of changes Canada and other democracies want to see in China, Mr. Neve said.

Mr. Chrétien needs to raise specific examples with Chinese leaders about how religious groups and others are being denied their rights of free expression, he added.

The arrest and three-hour detention of two British Columbia students in Beijing yesterday for shouting slogans calling for a recognition of human rights in Tibet only highlights the fact that free expression is not yet an entrenched right in China, Mr. Neve said.

Mr. Chrétien's remarks about the importance of the rule of law are a worthy effort, but the fact remains the judiciary in China is still not independent, says Warren Allmand, a former Liberal MP who heads the Montreal-based group Rights and Democracy.

Mr. Allmand said that one of his associates has been in China for two years helping to train the judiciary and reports that the courts are still not open and judges still fear political retribution if they try to exert independence.

Mr. Allmand said he hopes that Mr. Chrétien will use his remaining time in China to make explicit the link between trade and human rights. Mr. Allmand noted that some of the very products China wants to sell to the world are made by "basically slave labour."

Mr. Chrétien's speech at the judges' school was intended primarily for domestic consumption back home in Canada, says Cheuk Kwan, chairman of the Toronto Association for Democracy in China.

The Prime Minister gave the game away a day earlier when he suggested that Canada is too small a country to be preaching to China, Mr. Kwan said. "He took away his own thunder."

As a leading industrial country with a high standard of living, a long history of helpful activism on the world stage, and status as a major player at the United Nations and in other international bodies, Canada should not shy away from talking bluntly and forcefully to the Chinese leaders about human rights, Mr. Kwan added.

Barbara McDougall, who was the external affairs minister in the Progressive Conservative government at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989 and who now heads the Canadian Institute for International Affairs, said Mr. Chrétien should be careful when he suggests Canada has little influence with the Chinese.

That's inviting other countries to view Canada as a pushover in situations where Ottawa wants to take a firm position, she said.

Ms. McDougall also said the recent publication of internal Chinese Communist Party documents showing that the leadership was divided on whether to crack down on Tiananmen protesters should be a lesson to foreign leaders.

One can never tell if strong statements on human rights might not strengthen the hand of liberal reformers within the Chinese leadership, she said.

Mr. Clinton's nine-day tour of China is remembered for the opportunities the U.S. leader had to speak directly to the Chinese public, including an appearance on a phone-in radio program and a televised news conference with Chinese President Jiang Zemin that became de facto a debate on human rights.

Mr. Chrétien is not being afforded the same opportunities.

Mr. Clinton's officials tried to depict his visit as a triumph for human rights. Yet human rights groups say the two years since have seen abuses as serious as any time since the Cultural Revolution.

So, if even the president of the United States doesn't seem to have an impact, how can the Canadian Prime Minister do any better?

"You can never second-guess yourself on something as basic as human rights," Mr. Kwan said.

Interact with The Globe