The following op-ed was contributed to The Globe and Mail on June 3, 2016 by Anastasia Lin, Miss World Canada 2015 and a Toronto-based actress and human-rights advocate.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s sharp rebuke of a Canadian reporter is by now already infamous.
“I have to say your question is full of prejudice against China and arrogance, and I don’t know where that is coming from,” he said at a press conference on June 1, even though he wasn’t even the one being addressed.
“This is completely unacceptable,” he added, before hectoring the reporter with questions about whether she “understands” China, or had ever been there.
All the while, Stéphane Dion, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister, just stood there.
But Mr. Wang did make one great point: “It is the Chinese people who have the right to speak about China’s human rights.”
Indeed, as a Chinese-Canadian with a love for what is best in both countries, I agree that we should be hearing from the Chinese people. Let’s hear about the struggles they go through for their human rights; let’s hear about the harassment, bullying, and persecution they suffer at the hands of the Communist government; and let’s hear what they think about the aggressive attacks by Mr. Wang, and the vapid obsequiousness of Mr. Dion.
The unintended irony of Mr. Wang’s remarks is that they were made just three days before the anniversary of the June 4 massacre, one of the best days for an exercise in seeing what the Chinese people think.
Like many Chinese-Canadians, I mark this date as it comes around each year: On June 4, 1989, the People’s Liberation Army was mobilized to forcibly clear Tiananmen Square of students and citizens who had occupied it, as they called for greater democracy and an end to untrammelled corruption.
It’s been estimated thousands of young, promising, innocent lives fell under a hail of machine gun bullets, or were crushed on the road under steel tank track plates.
This was one of the most iconic cases of Chinese actually attempting to exercise their supposed “right to speak” – and look what happened to them. Slaughter.
Ten years later, a similar dynamic occurred when practitioners of Falun Gong gathered quietly and peacefully outside Communist Party headquarters in Beijing. Within months, the regime had launched a ferocious and utterly brutal suppression. Tens of millions of meditators of this Buddha School practice were declared to be enemies of the state and stripped of their rights.
So we know what happens to the Chinese people when they actually try to speak their minds. But what’s remarkable is how this suppression can even extend to Chinese-Canadians, who too are in an extremely vulnerable position in the face of the attacks and intimidation of the world’s most powerful dictatorship.
My own father was visited and threatened by the Communist Party’s political police force after I won the Miss World Canada competition in 2015. I know countless friends and acquaintances in the Chinese-Canadian community who report that their family members are surveilled, threatened, or “invited for tea” by security officers in China, just because of their exercise of freedom of speech or faith while in Canada.
Foreign governments, on the whole, have done very little about this – and this includes our own.
If all the Chinese people were allowed to speak without fear, I am quite sure they wouldn’t agree with Mr. Wang’s arrogant bullying.
Perhaps we shouldn’t expect better from a Chinese official. He is, after all, simply resorting to the classic Communist Party M.O.: when outclassed, try to outgun. Use intimidation, distraction, bullying, and censorship to get your message across. The regime is very skilled at doing this, and is allowed to behave as it wishes in China.
But there’s a deeper problem, on our side: Mr. Wang’s insult pales in comparison to the failure of our own Foreign Minister, who stood by and said nothing.
Why couldn’t he just say: “We’re in Canada now – although we respect your view and want to do business with you, this is how things work in a free country, where the media hold government accountable.”
Why can’t our own leaders uphold Canadian values? That is the one basic principle we should maintain if we’re going to do business with a dictatorship: it’s got to be done without compromising our own principles. We need to show them that we have a spine.