It was a predictable and entirely reasonable question posed by a member of the Ottawa press corps to Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion, who was holding a press conference in the foyer of the Lester Pearson Building, home to Canada’s foreign ministry (now known as Global Affairs Canada) with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The question, admittedly, was a bit of a “kitchen sink” composite, the result of a pooling of various topics since the Canadian press corps had been restricted to only one question, and one follow up.
Thus the reporter, Amanda Connolly, rolled a couple of issues into one and asked Dion whether he had raised with Wang the human rights situation in China, with specific reference to the kidnapping of several book publishers in Hong Kong and the ongoing detention by China of a Canadian citizen Kevin Garrett who has been accused by Beijing of “spying for Canada.” For good measure she also threw in a reference to the South China Sea. Dion, never the most charismatic of politicians, mouthed the usual platitudes about “honest and frank conversations” on human rights and consular affairs and “agreeing to disagree” (on the South China Sea).
The next question, on a different subject from a Chinese reporter, was to Wang but instead of following the usual diplomatic protocol and sticking to the “script,” or just moving on, Wang launched into a lecture berating the reporter for having the temerity to ask such an “irresponsible” question, which was “full of prejudice” toward China, and “unacceptable.” To quote in full, Wang said;
“I want to respond to the question from this reporter about China. I have to say that your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance where I have heard that come from and this is totally unacceptable. I have to ask whether you understand China? Have you been to China? Do you know that China has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty and do you know that China is now the second largest economy in the [crosstalk]. Do you think development is possible for China without protection of human rights and do you know that China has written the passion and promotion of human rights into our constitution? Other people don’t know better than the Chinese people about the human rights conditions in China and if the Chinese people, who are in the best position have say about China’s human rights situation. So I would like to suggest to you please don’t ask questions in such an irresponsible manner and though we welcome goodwill suggestions, we reject groundless or unwarranted accusations.”
Did Wang just lose his cool or was his outburst part of new aggressive tactics by China to go on the offensive against any form of criticism, even by foreign reporters on their home turf and even when the question is directed to someone else? While he seemed genuinely angry, it is hard not to conclude that the “good offence is the best defence” is part of a broader, more hard line “communications” strategy being adopted by Beijing. It fits the broader context of China’s more aggressive foreign policy stance and the more aggressive tone used in comments and communications. The essence of Wang’s message seemed to be “China is a big economy, so how dare you criticize us.” According to his line of thinking, human rights are written into the Chinese constitution–so presumably there is no issue. Moreover, according to Wang, the Chinese people are in the best position to comment on the human rights situation in China. Except if they do so in a way the regime doesn’t like, we all know what the consequences will be.
The finger-wagging bravado fits a pattern. China is back, big time, and if you want to do business with China (who doesn’t?), stop raising annoying political irritants, especially when they involve China’s internal affairs. Unfortunately foreign relations can seldom be segmented in this way. The Liberal government of Justin Trudeau wants to strengthen economic relations with China, and is exploring the possibility of embarking on bilateral free trade negotiations. China too, presumably, sees benefit in concluding an economic partnership agreement with Ottawa. It is the initiator of the proposed agreement and the Chinese ambassador in Ottawa, who immediately went into damage-control mode after Wang’s intervention, has talked of a “golden-age” of China-Canada relations. In his call to Canadians not to be “blinded” over human rights differences with China, Ambassador Luo Zhaohui bemoaned “microphone” diplomacy. It is usually easier to deal with difficult issues in private. The only trouble with this argument is that it was Wang who was grabbing the mike and putting China’s human rights record in the spotlight.
There will be little bilateral progress and no golden age if Trudeau and the Liberals can’t carry at least a modest majority of Canadian public opinion with them in opening up relations further with China. Currently China is not popular in Canadian public opinion, and less than half the Canadian public supports a free trade agreement with Beijing. Some of the criticism of China is perhaps unfair and possibly grounded in a lack of appreciation for what the country has accomplished in terms of poverty alleviation and expanded economic and personal liberties in comparison to the Mao years. Some of the criticism, however, is very legitimate from a Canadian perspective. Why wouldn’t Canadian reporters ask about a Canadian citizen held incommunicado in China for over a year on only the vaguest of charges? Why wouldn’t Canada, which has over 300,000 passport holders living in Hong Kong, be interested in the political future of the territory?
Much of China’s negative public image in the West reflects China’s recent behaviour, and Wang’s public scolding of a Canadian reporter for asking legitimate questions of the Canadian foreign minister plays right into this narrative. Wang’s intervention not only put a greater spotlight on China’s human rights record, and China’s defensiveness on this score, it virtually assures that if Trudeau makes an official visit to Beijing this fall, the human rights issue will be a prime focus for the media travelling with him. It will be the first question he is asked and if not handled well, it could overshadow whatever positive agreements are reached in the economic sphere. In this regard, if Wang wanted to throw sand in the gears of the apparently impending “golden age” of Canada-China relations, he could not have done a more effective job.
The Canadian government has gone into damage control mode of its own. Dion seemed to have been caught flat-footed by Wang’s outburst and missed what would have been a golden opportunity to remind his guest that he was in Canada, where the press not only has the right but the duty to ask probing questions. Dion had to handle plenty of them himself when he was Leader of the Opposition a few years back. Instead, he responded a couple of days later stating that he did not feel the need to intervene to protect a thick-skinned professional journalist who was quite capable of standing up for herself (except that she had no chance to respond). It took the Prime Minister’s Office to set the record straight, with Trudeau making it clear that both he and Dion had expressed dissatisfaction to the Chinese foreign minister and the Chinese ambassador over the way Canadian journalists were treated.
Is this a big deal or will it blow over? And does China care? Presumably there are some officials at the Chinese Foreign Ministry who will not be happy to see their hard work in building the platform for stronger Canada-China relations demolished by their minister. But Wang’s microphone diplomacy likely went down well in Beijing where all agencies from the Party Propaganda Bureau to CCTV are being urged to promote party ideology. Tolerance of dissent and criticism is being further restricted, and allowing foreigners to criticize Chinese actions on human rights and in the South China Seas even indirectly through questions is clearly not a good career move these days.
How will all this affect the future path of Canada-China relations? A lot will depend on how both sides handle the file. China should accept that Trudeau will be compelled to raise human rights issues, and could be helpful by resolving issues such as the detention of Kevin Garrett. Canada has just been given a lesson, if one was needed, about how sensitive, defensive and prickly the Chinese are over their recent actions, both internally and externally. If there is to be a new “golden age” in Canada-China relations, Chinese officials will need to learn to restrain themselves from publicly castigating the foreign media for doing its job.
This piece was first published in The Diplomat on June 16, 2016