In its brief history of relations with China, the public face of Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s government has alternated between enthusiastic and inscrutable. On the subject of expanded trade, Chrétien— who led a mission that signed $8.6 billion worth of deals there in 1994—is always enthusiastic. But his government has much less to say about China’s unsavory human rights record. In a March, 1994, speech in Moncton, Chrétien said that Canada should not act like “a big shot” on the subject because it was too small a country to have any influence. And last week, despite heat from some Liberals, pragmatism triumphed over principle again: Foreign Affairs Minister Lloyd Axworthy said that Canada would drop its traditional co-sponsorship of an annual UN resolution condemning China’s human rights situation. “They [China] agreed to some new measures,” said Axworthy. “We agreed to give those a chance.”
In effect, acknowledged a clearly torn Axworthy in an interview with Maclean’s, Canada agreed to accept the inevitable. For the past six years, Ottawa had supported a UN resolution that expressed “concern” over China’s human rights record. The measure was backed by European Union members and the United States, but was always shot down on procedural grounds by the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, in the face of furious lobbying by China. Then, this year, France said it would not support such a resolution, and Germany, Italy, Spain and five other countries soon followed suit. That left Denmark as the principal sponsor of a resolution that, among other things, criticized China’s human rights record and its
treatment of Tibet. At that point, said Howard Balloch, Canada’s ambassador to China: “It was clear to us that it would not pass. Therefore, the calculation we made was, did we wish to sponsor a resolution that would not pass, or was it sensible to try other approaches?” Last week, delegates in Geneva voted 2 to 17 against the latest effort to have the resolution debated.
Against that backdrop, Axworthy, who visited Beijing in early April, negotiated a series of agreements with Chinese officials aimed at mollifying concerns of human rights activists. They include a meeting (to take place at an unspecified time) of a joint Canada-China human rights committee; Canadian assistance in developing a legal aid system; co-operative work on minority affairs issues; a visit by a Canadian delegation, including church groups, to Tibet; and “work towards implementation” of China’s obligations to meet standards set by the UN Convention Against Torture.
Those agreements allow Canadian officials to claim that they achieved specific results that matter more than the symbolic support of the UN resolution. But Axworthy, often a lonely voice among Chrétien’s senior cabinet members in his pursuit of human rights issues, conceded that Canada’s policy towards China “is very much a work in progress.” There are, he said, “some signs of a breakthrough on this front in China—but we are also saying we will revisit this issue in another year if we are not satisfied.”
Ottawa drops out of the UN human rights fight
The reality, however, is that the annual efforts to formally censure China for its human rights abuses may be at an end. Canada originally planned to co-sponsor the resolution—Raymond Chan, secretary of state for Asia-Pacific affairs, had said so publicly on a visit to China several months ago. But, he said last week, “The collapse of solidarity meant we had to start looking for some new ways \ to achieve our ends.” And despite I the “real progress” that Chan said I is contained in the Canada-China \ agreement, he conceded that “the I symbolic importance of the reso’ lution has been great, and what happened is unfortunate.” Now Denmark, which took the lead on the resolution despite Chinese threats, appears likely to pay a price. Last week, a Beijing official said that Denmark’s criticism would equal “a rock that smashed down on the Danish government’s and China postponed a planned exchange of visits.
An adviser to Chrétien said the Prime Minister discussed the issue “at some length” with President Bill Clinton on his visit to Washington in early April; the United States backed the resolution. Another adviser admitted that the decision to abandon Denmark led to “no small anguish” for some members of Chrétien’s inner circle. But the government again showed its priorities in its approach to two meetings last week. In the first, Axworthy and Chan were dispatched to Vancouver to welcome Beijing’s leading official on Hong Kong, which will be handed back to China on July 1; the official, Lu Ping, was also scheduled to meet Chrétien. By contrast, Chrétien’s aides did not announce plans for him to meet Hong Kong human rights activist Martin Lee until fewer than 24 hours before the event—and then, scheduled only 15 minutes for the session. A diplomatic Lee appeared determined not to directly criticize Canada’s policy towards China. But his chagrin showed when he said: “Mr. Chrétien believes that looking at things in the long term is a better policy. We are disappointed, because there isn’t too much time. It’s important for us to raise these issues now.” And in the government’s view, it seems, just as important for Canada not to do so.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.