BEIJING — Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon set out today to put Canada's rocky relations with China onto a new “forward-looking” course, albeit by borrowing heavily from Liberal policies that his government had previously dismissed as ineffective.
Speaking to students here at the China Foreign Affairs University, Mr. Cannon acknowledged that the Canadian-Chinese relationship – damaged in recent years by disputes over human rights, Tibet, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper's decision not to attend last years Beijing Olympics – has “gone through its ups and downs.” But Mr. Cannon said he hoped relations between Ottawa and Beijing could be “frank, friendly and forward-looking” from this point forward.
But the new China policy that Mr. Cannon appeared to be signalling today is more a retreat to the past, where Canada pushed human-rights concerns to the back-burner in favour of growing trade relations. Mr. Cannon told journalists that something similar to the old Canada-China Bilateral Human Rights Dialogue would soon be formed, though likely with a different name and a slightly different format.
“What we are proposing, and we want to be able to move forward with this, is a mechanism whereby both parties will be able to look at this issue,” Mr. Cannon told a press conference hosted by the Canadian Embassy a day after he met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Vice-President Xi Jinping. “I don't like using the words human-rights dialogue. I want to propose a mechanism whereby everybody will feel comfortable as we move forward.”
The old human-rights dialogue, which began in 1997 under former prime minister Jean Chrétien, was criticized by human-rights groups as an ineffective tool that allowed Beijing to make a show of listening to international concerns while doing little to change its policies on the ground. It was abandoned by Mr. Harper's government soon after it took office in 2006.
Human-rights groups still contest there is little point in resuming such contacts now, since Beijing seems no more willing to change its policies toward political dissidents, independent media and capital punishment than it was three years ago. “It is our contention that resuming quiet diplomacy by a secret bilateral dialogue with China on human rights has the effect of implying tacit acceptance of Chinese government violations of the universal norms of human rights,” read a letter delivered to Mr. Cannon's office last week by the umbrella Canadian Coalition on Human Rights in China.
The sudden willingness of the Conservatives to bring back something like the human-rights dialogue seems part of a broader effort to restart relations with Beijing after three years in which critics say Canada both lost its former political influence in China and missed out on valuable trade opportunities.
While Canada's new policy toward China remains in many ways undefined, Mr. Cannon's visit follows close on the heels of a trip by Trade Minister Stockwell Day, who made headlines by reverting to another old Liberal policy and reopening six trade offices around China that had been shut in recent years. Mr. Harper is also expected to visit Beijing later this year.
There's clearly a lot of fence-mending to be done. The fact that many Chinese now perceive Canada as something other than a friendly country came through clearly during Mr. Cannon's question-and-answer session with students at the China Foreign Affairs University.
“In the past several years, this administration of Canada has emphasized a lot human-rights issues or Tibet issues, so there has been a downturn of relations between China and Canada. I want to know whether your visit and the visit of the Trade Minister … means a positive change in China and Canadian relations and means a positive change in the foreign policy of this admin to china?” was how one student, a 24-year-old international relations major named Zou Jianye, sharply put the point. The question forced Mr. Cannon to retreat to platitudes about the prospect of “good relations in the coming years.”
Other students asked Mr. Cannon about the controversial case of Lai Changxing, a top Chinese fugitive who has sought refuge in Canada from corruption charges, as well as perceived anti-Chinese sentiment in Canada, and why Canada's foreign policy was so often indistinguishable from that of the United States.
The grilling Mr. Cannon got from the Chinese students was better than the average session of Question Period in the House of Commons, quipped Liberal foreign affairs critic Bob Rae, who is shadowing the visit along with Olivia Chow of the New Democratic Party. Nonetheless, he said he was pleased to see the Harper government ease its reflexive anti-China stand.
“It's a coming to maturity of the Harper government,” Mr. Rae said. “I think frankly [relations with China] will improve as result of what we've seen in the past several months.”
Still, the Conservatives have clearly put themselves in an awkward spot by trying to move toward a pro-business position on China after years of promising not to sacrifice human-rights principles in the name of trade.
Asked by a journalist about the looming 20th anniversary of the June 4, 1989 massacre of student protesters on Tiananmen Square, Mr. Cannon said he had raised the “larger scheme of things in terms of human rights” during his meetings with Chinese officials, though he did not elaborate.
“Canada's position has not changed. You know that our foreign policy is based on the promotion and development of human rights, on democracy, and on freedom, as well as the rule of law. That's part of our DNA, and we won't change that.”
But while Mr. Cannon's entire press conference at the Canadian Embassy was translated into English and Chinese, Mr. Cannon's response to the Tiananmen question was not translated into Chinese for the local media present.
Embassy officials later said that the translation was cut off because the minister, who flew to Shanghai later in the day, was falling behind schedule.