When China’s government recently protested the arrest in Vancouver of Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, it used something rarely heard from Beijing — the language of individual human rights.
“The detention without giving any reason violates a person’s human rights,” a spokesperson for the Chinese foreign ministry said.
The arrest of Meng — done at the request of the U.S. government on allegations she violated American trade sanctions on Iran — has put a strain on Canada-China relations and has resulted in two Canadians being detained in China.
But the incident has also revealed the Chinese government’s efforts to reshape the way human rights are talked about, and conceived, globally. Those efforts have been remarkably successful — partly due to their acceptance by Western governments, including Canada.
Until 1997, China was regularly called on the carpet at the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (now rebranded and upgraded as the Human Rights Council). Regular motions critical of China’s human rights record tended to centre on individual rights cases, while also making reference to the situation in Tibet.
Fearful of condemnation by a UN body, China was forced to resort to a procedure used by no other country: a counter-resolution calling for the CHR to take “no action” on human rights in China. Though China had the votes to get its way, the motions kept the pressure on. Chinese authorities felt this pressure keenly because it came from multiple channels, in an open forum protected by the UN system.
Keen for trade
That began to change as China’s economic power grew. Western governments were ever more keen to trade with China, and quite willing to lower the volume on human rights advocacy to reach that goal.
In 1996, Australia announced it would no longer co-sponsor resolutions critical of China (at the time not yet, as it is now, Australia’s top trading partner). It intended, instead, to open a “bilateral dialogue” on human rights.
A retrospective Australian government publication hailed the shift as more likely to get results, arguing that “non-confrontational, co-operative dialogue is the most effective way to address the human rights situation.”
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Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and Spain followed suit the next year. Each government couched the shift to bilateral dialogues on human rights as a positive step from “confrontation” to “co-operation.” Yet dialogues are conducted behind closed doors, without open records, and with no measurable benchmarks of success.
Above all, these dialogues are disproportional. When China was poorer, as it was through most of the 20th century, its government resented being bullied by powerful Western governments. There is no longer any bullying China in the 21st century. It takes a host of Western or Southern states to match China’s size and economic power.
By pursuing one-on-one dialogues with smaller countries, China was able not only to take human rights from public to private forums, but also to make sure it was the more powerful state in the room.
So why did half a dozen countries — soon joined by others — break ranks and stampede to the new bilateral dialogue tactic? Long-held dreams of tapping the “China market,” which had beckoned Canadians for generations, were in play.
For centuries, European and North American merchants had longed to open China’s doors and sell to its vast consumer base. The 1990s saw an East Asian “economic miracle” that bedazzled businesses and governments alike. Like Australia, Canada stood at the forefront of governments hoping to harness a menagerie of “little tigers,” “rising dragons,” “flying geese” and so on to boost their own prosperity.
China dwarfed the other Asian countries in scale and in market potential. Western business and government leaders were positively giddy over the prospects.
Human rights linkage abandoned
Former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney’s government was keen, but insisted trade should be partially linked with human rights. That linkage was abandoned under Mulroney’s successor, Jean Chrétien.
The leading symbol of Canada’s shift was Chrétien’s “Team Canada” trade missions, huge assemblages of politicians and corporate bosses that touched down, especially in Asian capitals, to do business.
Chrétien employed the same language of constructive engagement that Australian leaders had used. “Isolation is the worst recipe, in my judgment, for curing human-rights problems,” Chretien said during one Team Canada mission in Indonesia.
Chrétien was borrowing language on human rights developed by Asian dictatorships. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gained Canadian support for their conception of “constructive engagement” with human rights violators, a policy designed to justify deepening relations with Myanmar, then Burma.
ASEAN governments claimed that greater freedoms would come through bringing Burma into the international community, not isolating it. A related case came from Western universities, where several scholars were embracing “Lipset’s law,” a theory that greater wealth leads to more political freedoms.
Chrétien’s second foreign minister, Lloyd Axworthy, accepted that argument, arguing that human rights could best be promoted through what he called “active engagement and dialogue.” Trade and rights, Axworthy insisted, were “mutually reinforcing.” Good governance, including respect for rights and the rule of law, made growth possible, and growth made stable rights-respecting societies more likely. Here was Lipset’s law, recast as government policy.
The upshot was Axworthy’s decision to stop criticizing China’s human rights record in public, and turn instead to a bilateral human rights dialogue.
As rights groups assailed the Chrétien government’s decision to put trade ahead of human rights, the dialogue provided a way to perform human rights advocacy that was acceptable to China’s government, and thus would not jeopardize Canadian hopes for more trade with China.
A series of dialogue sessions took place until campaigning by Canadian rights activists made them a lightning rod for protest. When Stephen Harper came to power, he suspended the dialogues, never to be resumed.
Yet Conservative policy towards China descended into incoherence, then came full circle until one of his foreign ministers felt able to describe China as a Canadian “ally.” Justin Trudeau’s government has sought more trade with China and in 2016 established an annual leader’s dialogue between Trudeau and Chinese President Xi Jinping that includes but does not stress human rights.
China’s ability to reshape human rights pressure into quiet dialogue, and then to make human rights simply one aspect of a wider dialogue process, mirrors a shift from denial that major abuses were taking place to insistence that although rights were indeed universal, they were best promoted through dialogue.
Since it suited their own economic interests and ideologies, Western governments came to accept the Chinese case in the 1990s, and embrace it entirely today.
China changed the norms
As a result, China has managed to change international human rights norms, rather than being changed by them.
It was able to convince the UN Sub-commission on Human Rights to endorse “constructive dialogues.” It can exclude critical activists from UN forums and weaken aspects of the UN human rights system. And this year, a Chinese resolution calling for “mutually beneficial cooperation” in UN human rights mechanisms passed 28-1, despite warnings that it would “entrench impunity for human rights violations.”
Human Rights Watch fears that China is remaking the UN’s human rights systems in ways that will leave victims facing “almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable.”
China is influential, but would not have succeeded in changing the UN human rights system to this extent without quiet consent from countries who wanted to trade with it.
That consent has come because human rights almost always take a back seat to economics. Trade is integrated into most foreign ministries, while human rights remains an “optional extra.”
Canada’s current Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland insists that Canada is a “rule-of-law country,” but Canada remains hampered by its willingness to sideline human rights in relations with China, and to marginalize rights in its overall foreign policy.