A total of 38 civil society organizations signed a petition earlier this month urging Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — whose father established relations between Canada and the People’s Republic of China in 1970 — to prioritize protections for freedom of expression as Ottawa moves to deepen its relationship with the authoritarian country.
“We, the undersigned organizations and supporters, call on the Canadian government to put human rights, especially free expression and press freedom, at the heart of the ‘renewed’ Canada-China relationship,” the petition says, referring to the rapid pace of developments between the two governments following the somewhat cooler relationship under Stephen Harper’s Conservatives.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) paid a state visit to Ottawa late last month for talks with Prime Minister Trudeau. Among other things, the two sides committed to commencing exploratory talks on a bilateral free-trade agreement and continued discussions on the possibility of signing an extradition treaty.
“China is one of the worst perpetrators of crimes that silence the voices of activists, journalists, artists and others who exercise their right to freedom of expression,” the petition continues. “The country’s culture of impunity, where rights violations go unpunished, is systematic, endemic and ever-growing.”
China is at the bottom of the list on Reporters Without Borders’ 2016 World Press Freedom Index and more journalists are in detention in China (49) than anywhere in the world. The situation has worsened under President Xi Jinping (習近平), with new regulations creating additional hurdles for the collection and posting of material online and in social media. Just this week, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported that Chinese Communist Party (CCP) censors slapped Caixin Media with a two-month ban on republishing of its content for “repeatedly violating news and propaganda discipline” in the past year. According to RFA, Caixin Media’s website was also accused of publishing “problematic reports” that had “seriously negative” repercussions after they were republished elsewhere.
“In light of China’s atrocious human rights environment, simply acknowledging that China and Canada ‘have different systems of law and order,’ as Prime Minister Trudeau did during his press conference with Premier Li, is not acceptable,” the petition says. “The very nature of fundamental human rights is that they transcend national borders and apply to all humans equally, regardless of their citizenship.”
“Canada must not conveniently forget this in the name of increasing trade and currying favor with China,” it states. “‘Honest, regular engagement’ with China must include an engagement with, and consideration for, the Chinese citizens who risk their lives and personal freedom to secure the liberties we are guaranteed by birth.”
Although the petition focuses on journalistic freedoms in China, the CCP’s assault on freedom of expression does not limit itself to targeting journalists inside China. During a visit to Ottawa earlier this year, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (王毅) openly berated a Canadian journalist for raising the issue of human rights during a press conference, causing consternation across the nation. During a visit by Xi to Poland in June, pressure from Chinese officials on the Polish government is believed to have resulted in the denial of accreditation for a Polish journalist who was known to be critical of the CCP (the Prime Minister’s office in Warsaw denies this was the case). Similar incidents surrounded the visit of then president Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) to Ottawa in 2010, where it was alleged that two media outlets — the Epoch Times and New Tang Dynasty TV — were excluded from the press gallery due to pressure from the Chinese embassy (the Harper PMO denied the matter) ahead of a joint press conference. In the end, Hu and Harper only held a photo-op and dispensed with the traditional press conference.
Missing from the petition is any reference to China’s impact on journalistic freedoms in Canada, where pressure by pro-CCP elements has eroded press freedoms in Chinese-language media in the country, including self-censorship and the dismissal of journalists and editors who are critical of the CCP. In August this year, the New York Times ran an article headlined “Chinese-Canadians Fear China’s Rising Clout Is Muzzling Them.” That same month, the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression (CJFE) ran a report on its website on how Beijing had infiltrated Canadian media, leading to censorship. Similar erosions have also been observed in Australia, especially following the signing of distribution deals earlier this year between Australian media, including Fairfax media and Sky News, with the CCP Propaganda Department.
Also not mentioned in the petition, but something that, worryingly, appears to be turning into a greater problem internationally, is Beijing’s new strategy of targeting foreign journalists — not only in China, where it has long used the denial (or threat thereof) of work visas as a means to pressure foreign correspondents, but in other countries. In the past year alone, one of the largest firms in China (a Fortune 500 company) has harassed and threatened lawsuits against at least four non-Chinese individuals (three of them journalists) in three countries (U.S., Czech Republic and Taiwan) after their investigations pointed to possible connections between the company and organs affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and United Front units of the CCP. In all cases, the threatened lawsuits were undoubtedly meant to intimidate the writers, one of whom is a Canadian national, and discourage them from looking further into the matter.
The petition calling on Prime Minister Trudeau to emphasize human rights and freedom of expression in his dialogue with Beijing is a laudable effort, and one hopes that the Canadian leader will indeed press the matter with his counterparts. However, equally important but far less reported on is the impact that closer economic, social and political ties with authoritarian China is having on our own democratic institutions, including the media, and how Beijing is now willing to use extraterritorial means (abetted by complicit law firms) to silence investigative reporters and critics outside China.