David Mulroney was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2009 to 2012.
On first reading, Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland’s statement on the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre represents welcome clarity from a government that has struggled with its messaging about China. It calls for the Chinese government to “break the silence” by accounting for those who were killed or went missing, “to uphold all of its human-rights obligations,” and for “the release of those who have been unjustly and arbitrarily detained.”
On closer review, however, there is less to the statement than meets the eye. It largely recycles language used by the Conservative government in 2015.
This almost certainly reflects Ms. Freeland’s desire to play it safe, given China is holding two Canadians hostage, and has put another two on death row in retaliation for Canada’s arrest of Huawei chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou.
Lu Shaye, China’s outspoken and outgoing ambassador to Canada, reacted with his customary outrage, but his outburst had less to do with Canada’s official statement than with comments, largely unreported, that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made earlier in the day. While responding to a question about Tiananmen, Mr. Trudeau also called on China to “cease its actions against minorities like the Uyghurs.”
Mr. Trudeau’s words, understated though they were, failed to make it into Canada’s official statement. That was probably intentional. Governments typically deal with issues that are difficult to manage, but impossible to ignore, through what are called responsive lines. It’s a way of addressing an issue without making it your key message.
But taken together, Mr. Trudeau’s comments, followed by Ms. Freeland’s statement, represent the diplomatic equivalent of “burying the lede,” the cardinal mistake in journalism of obscuring the key point of a story under a welter of extraneous detail.
Surely, the issue at the very heart of this year’s commemoration of the massacre is its continuing legacy in China’s Xinjiang region. We need to acknowledge, and clearly, that after 30 years, China has only become more repressive. This is the lesson Beijing has taken from the massacre and its relatively consequence-free aftermath. And it has led, through the decades, to Xinjiang, where the mass incarceration of Uyghurs, and the systematic destruction of everything they have built and believe in, constitutes the most serious abuse of human rights currently under way on the planet.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo took a refreshingly different approach to the anniversary, explicitly connecting the legacy of Tiananmen with repression in Xinjiang, where, in the words of his official statement, China’s Communist Party is “methodically attempting to strangle Uyghur culture and stamp out the Islamic faith.”
Anniversaries have great significance in China. The 30th anniversary of the massacre was worthy of a far stronger Canadian statement, acknowledging that we are seeing in Xinjiang in 2019 the legacy of our failure to speak out clearly about what happened in Tiananmen Square in 1989.
What’s particularly puzzling about this missed opportunity is that it came during a week in which the Prime Minister chose to endorse the use of the word “genocide” to describe the tragic fate of Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Significantly, he acknowledged the validity of a charge that can be ascribed, according to the just-released report of a national inquiry, to Canadian governments, including his own.
This has proven controversial. While many Canadians believe that we should feel a real sense of shame and responsibility for what happened, genocide, as Erna Paris has pointed out, has a careful and specific meaning and is officially defined as involving actions that are both “deliberate” and “systematic.” There is some debate about whether those two words accurately reflect what was perpetrated against the missing and murdered Indigenous victims, or if “negligence” and “indifference” better express our collective culpability.
But “deliberate” and “systematic” accurately and unambiguously capture the vast and ambitious program through which the Chinese state, employing the full reach of its security forces and advanced technology, is terrorizing Uyghurs and erasing their culture.
One of China’s main weapons for suppressing the truth, at home and abroad, is to bend words away from their real meaning, making language serve the needs of the state. Combatting this requires plain speaking on our part, scrupulous fidelity to what words actually mean and the courage to use them when they are needed most.