Friday, September 09, 2005

Human rights, not trade and investment, should dominate the agenda when Prime Minister Paul Martin meets Chinese President Hu Jintao today.

For too long, Canadian politicians have had it backwards in their dealings with China: They have pushed for more trade, hoping economic development would lead to improved human rights there. What they have spectacularly failed to understand is that trade will take care of itself, while human rights need champions.

Sino-Canadian trade is growing so quickly it's hard to see what more Mr. Martin needs to do. Two-way trade has grown to about $31 billion a year, making China our second-largest trading partner after the United States. This growing relationship with China is lopsided, with Canadian imports accounting for $24 billion of that $31 billion figure.

While a trade deficit between two countries isn't necessarily harmful, trade dependence can be. A greater diversity of trading partners would keep Canada from making its foreign policy subservient to its trade requirements.

China is an authoritarian superpower. Mr. Hu's resistance to democratic reform and his country's blatant threats against democratic Taiwan should be Mr. Martin's main concerns.

Whenever Canadian politicians meet Chinese politicians, some mention of human rights is par for the course. But that mention is often a footnote to panegyrics about strengthening dialogue and strategic partnership. Even the token mention of human rights is often crafted to avoid giving offence, as in: Human rights in China are improving, but there is still some work to do.

That kind of statement isn't hard enough or sharp enough to make an impact on the Chinese regime. Mr. Hu's visit gives Mr. Martin an opportunity to speak loudly, firmly and publicly about specific violations.

He should speak about the ongoing persecution of the practitioners of Falun Gong.

He should speak about China's embrace of 21st-century forms of restriction on freedom of speech, including the monitoring of online dissidents and journalists and the creation of selective Internet search software that serves as anti-democracy censorship.

He should speak about Tibet, where Mr. Hu was the party secretary when China imposed violent martial law in 1989 and from where foreigners were barred as China marks 40 years of Tibetan "autonomy."

Yes, there is a lot Mr. Martin could say to Mr. Hu before the president heads to Toronto, Niagara Falls, New York, Mexico and Vancouver. The prime minister's office has said today's agenda will include discussions not just about trade and human rights, but also about tourism, investment, science and technology, energy and the environment. Such a broad agenda would make it easy for Mr. Martin to pay human rights the standard lip service.

He should, instead, see this visit as a chance to put human rights front and centre. Canada's trade relationship with China should not stop Mr. Martin from frank and public criticism of the Chinese regime.