China isn't listening

Friday, June 16, 2006, Page A24

China has a long tradition of receiving foreign guests and then utterly ignoring what they say. Today's Communist leaders are no more fond of foreigners' lectures than emperors of old, especially if the subject is human rights. Canada should have known this when Beijing agreed to begin a human-rights "dialogue" with Ottawa in 1997. In return for Canada's pledge not to co-sponsor a motion chastising China at the United Nations Human Rights Commission, China's leaders promised they would listen when Canadian officials came to talk about rights violations in China.

Always unpromising, this process has now been revealed as a complete charade. As Globe China correspondent Geoffrey York reports in today's paper, a report by Brock University scholar Charles Burton has found that "much of the dialogue consists of a prepared script, read by Chinese Foreign Ministry officials and repeated at dialogues with other countries. The content of the script is well-known in advance and of little interest to either side."

China sends low-level functionaries from the wrong ministries to its annual meetings with the Canadians and there is no evidence that those functionaries report back to their superiors about Ottawa's complaints, which cover issues from Beijing's treatment of Tibet to the heavy use of the death penalty in China. Over time, Beijing has downgraded its delegation to the meetings and dragged its feet on arranging them. As Prof. Burton puts it, "It's very hard to identify progress on human rights as a result of this dialogue."

Obviously, China's leaders are to blame for refusing to take their commitment to Canada seriously. But Ottawa was foolish to think they would, given the mixed message it sends to Beijing. Canadian officials preach about human rights one moment and enthuse about China's trade potential the next. The enthusing is far louder than the preaching, and the few lonely officials sent off to ritual dialogues with the Chinese are far outnumbered by the hordes of eager business executives, premiers, mayors and prime ministers who troop to China to smile, shake hands and sign deals with any Chinese official who will see them.

This is not to say that Canada should cease trading with China. To isolate the People's Republic would be both undesirable and, in this interdependent world, impossible. But Ottawa should put more emphasis on human rights when it deals with China's leaders. The rights dialogues, however well-intentioned, have turned into a way for both sides to shunt an uncomfortable issue onto a railway siding so it doesn't get in the way of the big freight train -- mutual commercial advantage.

It's time to stop the charade.