The Toronto Star had an excellent — and moving — piece by Iain Marlow about Huseyin Celil, the Uighur human rights activist of Canadian citizenship who has been rotting (almost literally) in jail for three years because of his alleged “splittist” activities.
The story puts officials at the Department of Foreign Affairs and staff at the embassy in Beijing to the task for their “amateur” handling of the case, quoting Charles Burton, a specialist on Sino-Canada relations and former in-house counselor at the Canadian embassy in Beijing, as saying that Canada’s foreign service remains intellectually ill-equipped to engage in the types of diplomacy that might have freed Celil: “The people that we have working in China don’t have, first of all, the linguistic competence to be able to engage in diplomacy with the Chinese elements that are holding Mr. Celil.”
“They don’t have the cross-cultural communication skills to know how to approach the agencies that are responsible for his incarceration, to try and come up with some means to negotiate a satisfactory resolution,” Burton says.
While all this may be true (and my experience in the Canadian government supports that view), Marlow argues that ultimately it was the “ideological federal politicians in Canada, whose public statements may have crippled diplomats’ efforts” that are to blame for Ottawa’s failure to secure Mr. Celil’s release. The author also quotes Errol Mendes, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, on Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s “damaging” statements regarding the affair: “What I’ve learned, after going to China almost every year for the past 15 years, is that the Chinese do not take kindly to people lecturing them. And the thing they need, more than anything else, is [help] trying to figure out a way of resolving disputes without losing face.”
What Mendes seems to be saying is that if Canadian diplomats had been willing to compromise on human rights and find a way to secure Celil’s release without Beijing losing face, the outcome could have been better. What I disagree with, however, is that in the Western view — and certainly in Canada’s — human rights are universal; any compromise on their validity would only invite further erosion of the principle and allow Beijing to get away with murder. Furthermore, as I’ve argued before, a soft, compromising approach to human rights in China ultimately ends up transforming us: We saw this during the Olympic Games in Beijing, with various intelligence agencies sharing intelligence with the Beijing security apparatus; at various venues during the Olympic torch journey, which resulted in massive police deployments in otherwise liberal cities around the world; and in Taiwan during the visit in November of ARATS Chairman Chen Yunlin (陳雲林), Taipei’s refusal to allow the Dalai Lama to visit, and, more recently, in its silence prior to the execution of suspected spy Wo Weihan (伍維漢) and during the security clampdown in Xinjiang.
All of these — and especially Taipei’s silence — were meant as compromises. What did this result in? The victims of Chinese repression only felt more abandoned than ever. I don’t often agree with Harper, but when, speaking at the APEC summit in 2007, he said that he would not sell out human rights to the “almighty dollar” in his relations with Beijing, he was right. This is not to say that a hard line on China’s human rights record would fare any better in securing the release of imprisoned individuals like Mr. Celil, but at least we wouldn’t be selling our souls in the process.
Ultimately, Celil is still in jail because Canadian diplomats had no stick with which to bring Beijing into line, while Canada craved the carrot that China wiggled at Ottawa’s nose.
Compromising on human rights is a slippery slope. One that door is opened, Beijing is sure to stick its foot at the bottom and widen the wedge. Leave it open long enough, and we might fall into the other room. If, as is often the case, “pragmatism” in one’s relations with China means exposing oneself to some sort of venereal disease of the soul, then I’d rather protect myself with the prophylactic of unwavering principles.