After nine years of futile discussions with Beijing over human rights, Canadian officials are increasingly dissatisfied and cynical about an annual dialogue that was intended to promote human rights in China, a new report says.
The dialogue was created as a cornerstone of Ottawa's policy of engagement with China on human rights, but today there is "pervasive cynicism" and "dialogue fatigue" among most officials, the report says.
The assessment, commissioned by the Foreign Affairs Department and completed this spring, was conducted by Brock University political scientist Charles Burton, a former Canadian diplomat who participated in several of the annual discussions.
His report found that many officials in both countries have mounting concerns about the process, seeing it as ineffective and largely a propaganda exercise.
The dialogue was launched in 1997 as part of an agreement between the two countries when Canada decided not to co-sponsor a resolution about Chinese rights violations at the United Nations human-rights commission in Geneva. It is an annual event, usually lasting one or two days, in which Canadian and Chinese officials discuss an agenda of human-rights issues.
In his report, Mr. Burton found that much of the dialogue consists of a prepared script, read by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and repeated at meetings with other countries. The content of the script is well known in advance and of little interest to either side, he said.
Canadian officials are concerned that there is "little connection" between the talks and the situation on the ground in China, he said. Moreover, the Chinese government is less committed to the talks, dragging its feet on arrangements, downgrading its delegation, and reducing staff in its human-rights division, he said in his report.
Because of China's rising nationalism and its economic growth, the Chinese government is "unwilling to be chastised over human rights any more," Canadian officials told him.
Moreover, the wrong people seem to be involved. The Chinese Foreign Ministry, which heads the Chinese delegation, has no real influence over human-rights policy, since its main function is to defend China's interests abroad. Other Chinese participants, including the state commissions on ethnic and religious affairs, are basically propaganda organs whose job is to defend Chinese policies.
The dialogue seems to remain at a low level on the Chinese side. The assessment could find no evidence that the Chinese participants are reporting to their superiors on the concerns raised by Canada on key issues such as Tibet, the death penalty, Falun Gong and the region of Xinjiang.
Chinese officials see the process as mainly a "political and diplomatic" process, the report said. They see it as merely a response to Ottawa's domestic political needs, which require the government to show Canadians that it is concerned about human-rights issues.
"It's very hard to identify progress on human rights as a result of this dialogue," Mr. Burton said in an interview. "We can't point to a lot of effective success. It seems to be largely continuing on inertia. It goes on, year by year, as a one-day event with very little continuity and few ways of measuring progress."
From the Chinese viewpoint, meanwhile, there is an equal level of unhappiness. Chinese officials find the dialogue "empty" and "too shallow to be of substantive benefit," the Burton report says. The Chinese criticized the Canadian participants for making "simplistic and sometimes condescending presentations." One official said that the Canadians have a "missionary attitude" towards China.
The Chinese officials also had several other complaints: The Canadian speeches and materials are poorly translated or not translated at all; the Canadian participants often change, so there is no depth or continuity to the discussions; and there is little chance for any follow-up discussion or exchanges beyond the annual meeting.
"What I found most unexpected was the high degree of dissatisfaction among the Chinese ministries," Mr. Burton said in the interview. "They feel they are spinning their wheels and wasting their time. They're doing it only to indulge the Canadians, so that Canada can say it is doing something. It's a great drain of their time and resources and they're not getting a lot out of it."
The whole point of the effort is to have an impact on China's human-rights policies, he noted. "If the Chinese don't feel that they are getting much out of it, that's the most problematic aspect of it."
Canadian rights activists agree with many of the concerns in Mr. Burton's report. They are particularly troubled that the dialogue does not include any of the Chinese officials who have responsibility for policies on minority rights.
"The discussion is therefore useless and its only purpose appears to be to satisfy domestic concerns in Canada," said Carole Samdup, a program officer at Rights & Democracy, a Canadian-based human-rights organization.
She said the event "has simply continued from year to year as a rote exercise, unaccountable and aimless."
Chinese authorities seem to use it as a form of bargaining with Canada, using human rights as currency, she said.