Chinese President Xi Jinping gave Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a well-publicized dressing-down at the G20 Summit in Bali last week.
He accused him of leaking to the media the contents of a meeting between the two leaders about alleged Chinese interference in the 2019 federal election.
The confrontation grabbed attention around the world and sparked a debate about the ways diplomatic conversations are communicated to the public.
It’s also an object lesson in diplomatic communication as Xi was apparently trying to push Canada back towards an earlier stance that accepted closed-door discussion.
Chinese leaders believe they can push the country around because Canadian governments have been broadcasting for decades that they don’t mind being pushed around.
That is one reason why Beijing feels free to arrest Canadian citizens like Huseyin Celil, “re-educate” Uighurs and thumb its nose at the global human rights system. To see how we got here, we need only look at Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government of the 1990s.
Canada was among the world’s top enablers for Chinese Communist Party rights violations. In the 1990s, it helped the CCP undermine the international human rights system. We are now living with the consequences of an eroded, weakened rights system.
Beginning in 1997, Canada, along with other countries, began to hold what they called “bilateral human rights dialogues.” Under the Chrétien government, Ottawa opened three dialogues – with China, Cuba and Indonesia.
Not coincidentally, all three were countries that were then criticized by Canadian human rights activists for their poor records. The three new “dialogues” were a government effort to demonstrate some action without actually imposing sanctions.
The Chrétien Liberals opposed any sort of concrete moves to pressure China on human rights, and just embraced trade. After all, they argued, trade would make everybody wealthier, and that would lead to more democracy. How did that work out?
Judging by recent events, not so well. Far from changing things, these supposed human rights dialogues became an end in their own right, showing few measurable results and freezing out meaningful participation by civil society. They became an excuse to avoid multilateral action.
That policy with China ended in ignominious failure.
Ottawa opened a “dialogue” with Beijing in 1997. At the same time, it stopped sponsoring an annual resolution on human rights in China at the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The Chrétien government called this U-turn “constructive engagement.”
Instead of public criticism, the defense of this tactic went, Chrétien would bring up human rights quietly and privately while he was visiting Beijing on his traveling jamborees to promote Canada-China trade – trips that he insisted on calling “Team Canada.”
Dialogue with China sounded good. What “dialogue” actually meant, though, was Canada helped China achieve its major goal – changing how the UN human rights system addresses rights violations.
After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, China’s Communist Party government started calling for “dialogue” about human rights with Western countries. Premier Li Peng, the “butcher of Tiananmen,” told the UN:
China values human rights and stands ready to engage in discussion and co-operation with other countries on an equal footing on the question of human rights.
What that meant was talking, quietly, in closed sessions, one-on-one. In open sessions, countries can advocate together with human rights groups. Behind closed doors, with only two governments present, Canada’s voice is that of a pipsqueak – and easy for the CCP to ignore.
“Bilateral human rights dialogues” replaced multilateral pressure. Beijing could not have succeeded on its own. The system changed because governments such as Canada’s helped it.
The result was that Beijing managed to alter international human rights norms at the UN, so much so that it’s no longer possible to even hold a debate on Uighur rights at the UN Human Rights Committee.
Why did Canada help China’s leaders undermine human rights at the UN? The Chrétien government wanted to trade with China. Though Stephen Harper would criticize this valuing of “the almighty dollar” ahead of human rights, his own government ended up hugging Beijing.
Governments of both parties backed trade. And both were willing to sacrifice human rights to get it. If previous governments had not aided and abetted China’s campaign to undermine the UN human rights system, we might not be where we are today.
It is this closed-door style of bilateral relationship that Xi wants to force Trudeau back into, as he publicly showed in hectoring him in Bali. He thought he could do that because this is the lesson that the Chrétien and Harper governments conveyed to China’s leaders.
It’s a lesson that it will take a long time to overhaul – if the Trudeau government even truly wants to.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.