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United Nations Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth speaks at a news conference at UN headquarters, in New York, on Jan. 14, 2020.

Scott Heins/Getty Images

The expanding influence of the Chinese government endangers global human rights and press freedom, a pair of reports have warned – just before the signing of a trade agreement that promises to ease tensions between Beijing and Washington.

The confluence of developments underscores a question confronting decision-makers around the world as they assess the rise of a country whose economy offers lucrative opportunities, even as its rulers enforce an increasingly rigid orthodoxy at home and abroad.

China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry countered on Wednesday that human rights in the country are at their “historic best.”

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But the broader questions surrounding China’s international role – as a co-operative partner or disruptive authoritarian – have particular import for Ottawa. The Canadian government is trying to resolve a tangled conflict with Beijing that involves the arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, China’s retaliatory arrest of Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, the blocking of some exports from Canada, demands from Canadian corporations for a return to business as usual with the world’s second-largest economy and a parallel campaign by the U.S. to persuade its allies to bar technology giant Huawei from their mobile networks.

“China’s government sees human rights as an existential threat,” and its actions “could pose an existential threat to the rights of people worldwide,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in a new report. It criticizes China for its incarceration of Muslims, its development and export of surveillance technology and its crackdown on civil society under President Xi Jinping.

“If not challenged, Beijing’s actions portend a dystopian future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors, and an international human rights system so weakened that it no longer serves as a check on government repression,” wrote Mr. Roth, who on Sunday was barred from entering Hong Kong for a launch of the report.

He cites Canadian examples of Chinese interference, including a Vancouver technology consultant who said open criticism of China’s Communist Party from abroad can result in the loss of retirement benefits for parents still in China.

“What happens in China doesn’t stay in China. It’s exported these days,” Mr. Roth said in an interview. And repression of human rights in China today is “as bad as it has been since the Tiananmen crackdown,” he said.

Meanwhile, organs of the Chinese state – including its media and others acting internationally – have disseminated disinformation and narratives favourable to Beijing, according to a new report from Washington-based NGO Freedom House.

“Tactics that were once used primarily to co-opt Chinese diaspora media and suppress critical coverage in overseas Chinese-language publications are now being used to influence mainstream media in various countries,” it said in its report, Beijing’s Global Megaphone.

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Here, too, Canada plays a role: Two reporters at B.C.-based Global Chinese Press were fired in the past half-decade after publishing content that angered Beijing. Meanwhile, the use of the heavily censored WeChat app in Canada has provided the Chinese government with a way to shape conversations and “also creates a strong foundation for future [Chinese Communist Party] election meddling,” Freedom House warned.

The Chinese government dismissed the criticism. “The human rights situation in China is at its historic best,” Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Wednesday. He accused Human Rights Watch and Freedom House of “having no regard for the truth and calling black white.”

The Chinese constitution protects freedom of expression, he said. He defended Chinese media as dedicated to “principles of objectivity, fairness, truthfulness and accuracy.” He added that China recently released a code of ethics for journalists that obligates reporters to “adhere to the correct political direction.”

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump signed a trade agreement on Wednesday in Washington with a delegation that included Vice-Premier Liu He. The deal amounts to a partial detente between the world’s two largest economic powers and paints Beijing as a co-operative partner in global trade.

The deal includes a commitment from Beijing to purchase US$200-billion in U.S. goods by 2021, and to stop the forced transfer of technology from foreign companies. The U.S., meanwhile, is expected to abandon a threat to impose additional tariffs on Chinese goods, although tariffs on roughly US$370-billion in Chinese imports will remain.

It’s a step “toward a future of fair and reciprocal trade with China,” Mr. Trump said. “Together we are righting the wrongs of the past.” Mr. Liu said the deal, which only partly resolves trade frictions, is a sign the two countries can “work together.”

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In its report, Human Rights Watch also criticized Canada for ”wide-ranging abuses against Indigenous peoples,” as well as the incarceration of immigration detainees, the use of solitary confinement, overseas abuses by natural resources companies and the sale of military equipment to countries with poor human-rights records.

But it directed special attention to China, which it said is creating a global template for “prosperous dictatorship.” Mr. Roth called for “an unprecedented response from those who still believe in a world order in which human rights matter,” including diplomatic shunning and common codes of conduct for foreign universities and companies with business in China.

For Canada in particular, he said, the arrest of Ms. Meng has exposed a vulnerability. “China loves to deal with governments one by one and bully them into compliance,” he said. “It shows the importance of dealing with China as a coalition.”

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