Friday, April 13, 2007

Response to Daniel Bell's Comment Piece "Lecturing the Chinese won't promote human rights"

On April 13, The Globe and Mail published a comment piece by Daniel Bell, a Canadian teaching at Qinghua University in Beijing, entitled "Lecturing the Chinese won't promote human rights." This article is flawed in its arguments and unfairly characterizes Canadian Government policy to promote good governance, democratic development, rule of law and respect for the universal norms of human rights.
Canadians continue to be disturbed by reports of human rights violations by the Chinese authorities against ethnic minorities, including the Tibetans and the Uyghurs, and against faith communities, particularly Roman Catholics and some other Christian groups, as well as Falungong practitioners. These are all trans-national communities with large numbers of members in Canada so it is incumbent on our Government to respond to their collective concerns. But it doesn't stop there: Canadian labour identifies with the poor working conditions of their Chinese counterparts, AIDS activists in Canada feel a moral obligation to speak out for their Chinese colleagues who are denied a public voice, and in general Canadian citizens empathize with people outside of Canada who are denied the fundamental entitlements of citizenship -- the right to speak one's mind out, to freely associate with one other, and to be protected by just laws from arbitrary mistreatment by authority.
Mr. Bell suggests that expressing concern for human rights violations in China is "not necessarily the role of foreign governments." He is wrong about that. It is necessary because the mandate of the our Government's foreign policy is to defend Canadian interests abroad and clearly most Canadians have strong interest in our Government taking a strong stance against injustice and oppression beyond our borders. Of course we want to engender prosperity in Canada through foreign trade but our relations with China are not just about trade.
No one is proposing that Canada simply lecture the Chinese authorities about human rights. The Canadian approach is to raise our concerns honestly and engage the Chinese authorities on them. But the engagement has to be effective and not on Chinese terms alone. The answer is not, as Mr. Bell proposes, that we cease to focus "in such sensitive areas" and devote ourselves to poverty alleviation and environmental concerns instead. We would undoubtedly "secure the cooperation of Chinese government officials" if we did so. Without question they would like Canada to provide them with resources to transfer to their poor and to help undo the negative environmental consequences of their rapid industrialization. But these are areas that the Chinese régime clearly now has the economic resources to effectively address themselves. The central problem is that there is lack of political will in China to transfer wealth from the burgeoning coffers of the Communist Party dominated business élite to the still-impoverished ordinary Chinese people they claim to represent. One is hard pressed to find a single Communist Party official whose lifestyle seems in any way compatible with his legitimate income. This while most Chinese people continue to live under conditions of unacceptable poverty with inadequate access to medical and educational services. The fundamental issue in China today remains lack of good governance, democratic development, rule of law and respect for the universal norms of human rights. Canada needs to do a better job in formulating policy to bring these to reality in China.
As a graduate of the History of Ancient Chinese Thought program in the Philosophy Department at Fudan University I have the greatest respect for China's wonderful cultural tradition and years later continue to enrich myself through reading classical Chinese texts and the contemporary commentaries on them. Canada's policy of promoting human rights in China is not because we have any aspirations to be "hegemons or self-righteous moralizers" as Mr. Bell implies. But history will not judge us well if we fall into the trap of moral appeasement that he urges. The Chinese people deserve better from their Canadian friends.

Link to Bell's article

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