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HomeBusinessCommentary: Can Canada-China relations return to normal?

Commentary: Can Canada-China relations return to normal?

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By Florence Mo Han Aw 

Former Liberal Member of the B.C. Legislative Assembly, Richard Lee has disclosed in a recent media interview that, in November 2015, he had been detained for eight hours and refused entry by the Chinese port of entry authorities at Shanghai, when he and his wife went there on tour.

Ex-BC Liberal MLA Richard T. Lee (Mackin)

His personal cell phone as well as the MLA business cell phone were seized and he was required to provide his passwords. Eventually, the Chinese authorities revoked his entry visa on the ground of “endangering the national security,” and he was ordered to directly fly back to Canada with his wife. During the improper detention, he had sought to contact the Canadian Consulate General, the Canadian Ambassador, as well as his travel agency. All such requests had been denied.

In the 16 years from 2001 to 2017, Lee served for four terms as a member of the provincial legislature. He said that during that time he had done a lot of effective work towards the promotion and facilitation of cultural, trade and inter-governmental exchange between Canada and China. So he did not anticipate any problems entering Shanghai. He had no idea that he had been blacklisted by China. Apparently, his record of goodwill meant nothing to the government of China, which routinely ignores individual human rights and international diplomatic protocol.

Lee has served as chairman of the second board of directors of the Vancouver Society in Support of Democratic Movement. He has regularly attended the annual candlelight vigil in memory of the June 4, 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre in front of the People’s Republic of China Consulate General’s mansion in Vancouver. He had been cautioned by Liu Fei, then-Consul General in Vancouver, not to participate in such activities or express such opinions which might offend the Chinese government.

Mayor Malcolm Brodie at the farewell for Liu Fei (Facebook)

The Consul General in Vancouver had also pressured Chinese community organizations in Vancouver to alienate him. Lee’s regular attendance at the vigil for those who died in the Tiananmen incident shows that he is a politician who is concerned about justice, freedom and democracy. Because of that, he had been refused entry to China.

Other politicians, such as Teresa Wat, a current BC Liberal MLA, have stated that they have never had any problems entering China, including Shanghai. Obviously, that is because these politicians, in order to curry the favour of the Chinese government, have kept their silence on issues of freedom and democracy. The Chinese government is antagonistic towards universal values, and has banned people, including politicians who hold dissenting opinions. In other words, to be welcome to China, one must not only have goodwill, but also must be willing to keep quiet on issues of freedom, democracy and human rights.

Lee, who was at the time serving as deputy speaker of the B.C. Legislature, did not openly speak about the incidence upon his return to Canada. His explanation is that he was considering the potential damage to the Canada-China relations. It was not until the end of 2018, when China retaliated against Canada’s detention of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s deputy chairwoman, by detaining two Canadians, Michael Kovrig, former diplomat, and Michael Spavor, businessman.

While Canada was acting pursuant to its obligations under the extradition treaty with the U.S., China’s detention of the two Canadians was for allegations of “endangering the national security.” He sympathized with the plight of the two detained Canadians, and decided to speak up about his own experience. He wrote a letter addressed to both Chrystia Freeland, then foreign affairs minister, and Lu Shaye, then Chinese Ambassador to Canada.

The Prime Minister’s Office responded only after inquiry from news media. To avoid jeopardizing Canada-China relations, Lee has endured the humiliating experience in silence for four years. This really tells us about the bind that Canadian politicians are in. And the Canadian government is still keeping its head down and mouth shut. “Canada-China relations” appears to be a behavioural control device that so far has been effectively used by China against Canada.

Clark and Wat with Communist Hu Chunhua (BC Gov)

Many people think that once both sides release their respective detainees, the inter-governmental relations will return to normal. This view is too simplistic. They forget that Canada and China have significant differences in their political systems and fundamental values.

If Canadians stand firm on their fundamental values, and put human rights above trade, then Canada-China relations will not completely return to normal.

  • Florence Mo Han Aw is the author of the 2012 memoir, My Time in Hong Kong’s Underground Communist Party.

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