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China's ambassador to Canada Cong Peiwu speaks as part of a panel at the Ottawa Conference on Security and Defence in Ottawa, on March 4, 2020.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Earlier this week, when he was asked about his country’s systematic persecution of its Muslim minorities, China’s ambassador to Canada told a room full of security experts in Ottawa a brazen lie.

“There’s nothing like concentration camps in China or particularly in the Xinjiang autonomous region,” Cong Peiwu said, in reference to the concentration camps in China, particularly in the Xinjiang region. Mr. Cong, speaking on a panel organized by the Conference of Defence Associations Institute, called reports to the contrary “misleading” and “fake news.”

The “vocational training centres,” he explained, were set up as a response to terrorist incidents. “That’s why the government had to take preventative measures when it comes to counterterrorism,” he added, parroting Beijing’s flaccid explanation for why it has detained, according to some estimates, as many as 1.5 million people.

Those who have escaped the camps – the existence of which China initially denied altogether – have reported incidents of physical and psychological torture, violence, indoctrination and rape. Recently leaked documents of records kept by Chinese officials indicate that members of Muslim ethnic minorities, mostly Uyghurs, have been detained and sent to these “vocational training centres” for reasons as trivial as wearing a veil or growing a long beard. An earlier leak of more than 400 pages of internal Chinese government documents outlined the framework of, and propaganda involved in, these mass detentions – among them, a script for local officials to follow in explaining to children why their parents were being sent away to camps.

So to hear China’s ambassador to Canada try to portray his country’s deliberate, meticulous, ruthless crackdown on ethnic minorities as the equivalent of sending a speeding truck driver to remedial driving school – especially while speaking in front of an audience that absolutely knows better – was patently absurd. The expression most people would use in this situation is “pissing on your leg and telling you it’s raining,” but it seems in this case Mr. Cong was trying to convince the audience they weren’t even getting wet.

Practically speaking, there probably wasn’t much to be gained by making a fuss in the moment. And to the panel moderator’s credit, he did push back against Mr. Cong’s claims. Nevertheless, it’s bizarre to think a room full of Canadians would sit politely, and later clap obediently, as a representative from China denies the violence and oppression that we know is going on in Xinjiang. Indeed, there’s an uncomfortable metaphor in there about how we – in Canada and elsewhere in the world – generally react to news of the persecution of minority populations abroad.

To be fair, Canada’s government is not in the best position to take a strong moral stand about China’s prison camps. China’s detention of two Canadians on bogus charges is continuing, and the Chinese can and have toyed with the Canadian economy by banning and restricting the import of certain Canadian products. On top of that, Huawei, the supposedly independent, absolutely not-state-controlled telecom company, injects tens of millions of dollars into funding and research at Canadian postsecondary institutions, which is something the federal government would be loath to forfeit.

So Canada, on an institutional level, likely will not do anything. And the United Nations Security Council, which is the only UN body with the authority to level sanctions or authorize the use of force, absolutely won’t do anything, given that China has veto power as a permanent member.

But even if just in a small, perhaps negligible way, individuals can take a stand against China’s persecution of minority populations by, for example, refusing to listen to those complicit in China’s human-rights abuses. That happened at a business forum at the University of British Columbia last year, when two representatives of companies implicated in human-rights abuses were dropped from the event’s agenda.

We can also choose not to buy products with ties to forced Uyghur labour. According to a recent report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, China has transferred some 80,000 Uyghurs to factories “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour.” The report goes on to implicate companies such as Nike, Microsoft, Sony and Bombardier, all of which have said they are investigating the allegations.

These individual actions may seem like meaningless gestures relative to a massive operation that has seen so many people unjustly detained. And to a certain extent, they are. But the very least Canadians can do, especially in the absence of formal government action, is continue to pay attention and try not to be so damn polite. That means supporting Uyghurs living in Canada, spending our consumer dollars ethically and calling out China’s ambassador to Canada when he peddles his ridiculous lies.

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