Human rights in China going in ‘negative direction,’ Canadian government report says

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Picture: China’s ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye, shown here in a June 29 file photo, blamed an ill-informed Canadian news media for forcing the issue of human rights onto the public agenda.  (JUSTIN TANG / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILE PHOTO)  

Respect for human rights in China has declined over the past two years with crackdowns on media and political dissent being notable problems, says an internal Canadian government report.

The candid assessment is detailed in the most recent human rights report on China, completed in January by Global Affairs Canada.

“While there have been some positive developments in the past two years … the overall trend for human rights continues in a decidedly negative direction,” says the report, a copy of which The Canadian Press obtained under Access to Information.

The Trudeau government has said publicly that it will not shy away from discussing human rights with China, but the report goes beyond generalities, detailing the specifics of why the government sees a rollback on rights.

Read more: China thinks free trade with Canada would reduce investor uncertainty

The report comes as Canada and China continue exploratory talks towards a possible free trade agreement.

Canada and China disagree over the role of human rights in any future trade deal: Canada says the issue is linked to economic engagement, while China says there is absolutely no connection.

In a recent interview with The Canadian Press, China’s ambassador to Canada Lu Shaye blamed an ill-informed Canadian news media for forcing the issue onto the public agenda.

Lu said Canadian politicians sometimes have to “bow before media” and he advocated the approach of his country’s ruling Communist party as an efficient way to deal with the media, which he said was “to lead and mobilize people for a common cause.”

However, the government’s internal rights assessment on China details specific concerns based on its own research and analysis, including threats to freedom of expression.

“In March 2016, President Xi Jinping toured major Chinese television news outlets telling journalists that the media must serve the Party and follow the Party’s leadership,” the report states.

“Sina and Tencent (two of China’s largest internet companies) were ordered to no longer publish original news content, effectively permitting only state media to do so.”

It cites a report by the Committee to Protect Journalists that says 49 journalists and online writers were in Chinese jails as of December, the highest number in the world.

It also cites an annual survey of China’s foreign correspondents that found more than half of the 100-plus respondents said they “had personally been subjected to some form of interference, harassment or violence.” Journalists said “the overall climate for reporting has deteriorated.”

It notes the expulsion of a French journalist in December for publishing an article “critical of Chinese policies,” and notes that before foreign journalists can renew their credentials they must be interviewed by the police or the “Public Security Bureau” as well as the foreign ministry.

The report cites concerns over political and religious freedom.

While China’s constitution allows for anyone to run for election, “in practice” the candidates must be approved by the Communist party, the report says.

Similarly, constitutional provisions ensuring freedom of religion have not led to a guaranteed right of expression, with reports of churches being demolished and crosses being taken down “under the pretext of removing ‘illegal structures’ that do not comply with zoning and building codes.”

The report cites positive developments such as a reduction in the number of crimes where the death penalty can be imposed and China’s first domestic abuse law, which included consultations with other countries, including Canada.

The report says that although statistics on the death penalty are a state secret in China, experts say its use has decreased from 10,000 annual executions a decade ago to about 4,000 in recent years.

The report says that while the human rights situation in Hong Kong is “generally good,” the disappearance of some booksellers in 2015-16 has created “growing concern over erosion of press and academic freedom, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the future integrity of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy.”

In June 2016, the visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi berated a Canadian reporter at a press conference in Ottawa for asking a question about human rights, which included reference to the missing Hong Kong booksellers.

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