Canadian leaders do these Chinese citizens a tremendous disservice by refusing to publicly critique the web of repression they live through everyday. Such advocacy must begin with the prime minister.
On the same evening that Canadian Governor General David Johnston met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo died under guard in a hospital in Shenyang. As Johnston expressed his appreciation for President Xi “making time for us,” Liu passed away in silence, his body wracked by a cancer that was revealed to the public only after it was largely beyond treatment. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau didn’t acknowledge or commemorate Liu’s death in any way, not even on Twitter. This was in keeping with his silence regarding Liu’s case over the last few weeks, even as China’s refusal to allow Liu to seek medical treatment abroad became known to the world.
Though Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland would later release a statement commemorating Liu, it also avoided directly criticizing China. Instead, Freeland notes passively that Liu “spent many years imprisoned for peacefully exercising his right to speak freely, was denied the opportunity to travel to receive his 2010 Nobel Peace Prize, and more recently, in his final days, was denied the medical treatment he requested.” Trudeau’s failure to deliver a statement, coupled with this bland comment from the foreign affairs minister, compounded the sense that Ottawa is loath to say anything that will upset leaders in Beijing—a reticence no doubt related to the next round of exploratory discussions set to begin in two weeks regarding a potential free trade deal between the two countries.
Trudeau’s failure to deliver a statement about Liu compounded the sense that Ottawa is loath to say anything that will upset leaders in Beijing.
The Liberals’ failure to critique their counterparts in Beijing shows that it is naked economic self-interest, rather than any larger commitment to a shared democratic future, which defines this government’s handling of the China file. Were it not so, Trudeau would have commemorated Liu, a veteran of the 1989 democracy movement, who fought tirelessly for human rights and political reform in China. In 2008, Liu bravely spearheaded the Charter 08 campaign, a movement for genuine systemic reform in the country. The Chinese regime only confirmed the power of the Charter when they chose to suppress all traces of it, jailing Liu on the charge of “inciting subversion of state power.” His case has had a tremendous “chilling effect” on China’s intellectuals, as they have largely accepted the regime’s demand that no open critique of China’s one-party system appear in their work.
The Trudeau administration may believe that they are doing both China and Canada a service by refusing to comment on such issues. After all, as the Beijing government often says, are these not China’s domestic affairs, ones that foreign nations have no right to intervene in? Yet to accept Beijing’s logic on such matters flies in the face of a central Canadian value: the free exchange of ideas across cultures.
More importantly, it does nothing to empower those young people in China who are searching for a means of transitioning their country away from authoritarian governance. Such young people have fewer and fewer outlets for global interaction. On the same week that Liu died it was reported that the Chinese government plans to block all Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) throughout the country, starting in early 2018. VPNs allow internet users to securely access private networks and share data through public networks. If the government does block them, vital digital lifelines to international news and global cultural trends will be severed.
It is little surprise, then, that with their digital ecosystem dominated by state media, the question of Liu’s legacy remains a fraught one for China’s netizens. When the news of Liu’s death broke, many Chinese wrote indirect expressions of condolence on the popular social media site Weibo, calling him a Doushi (a warrior). Yet others claimed that Liu was not worth remembering. They argued he was a false Junzi (the Confucian term for a cultivated man) who had sought fame by undermining the party and the state. While Liu has been praised for his courage in Taiwan and Hong Kong, in the Mainland, the battle over his legacy has only just begun.
Canadian leaders do China’s young people a tremendous disservice by refusing to publicly critique the web of repression they live through everyday.
Canadian leaders do these young people a tremendous disservice by refusing to publicly critique the web of repression they live through everyday. Such advocacy must begin with the prime minister, who remains the only Canadian leader with a global platform large enough to have a sustained impact. As tens of thousands of young Chinese move to Canada to study and live, and with millions more on campuses across the Mainland eager to engage with Canada, the ethical imperative to articulate what Canada can mean for China in the realm of ideas and values is more urgent than ever.
In an era in which one tweet can cross oceans instantly, Canada’s leader must remind young Chinese citizens that they are not alone, and that different models of social governance are not only possible but essential. Such a message is the only fitting tribute Justin Trudeau can give to Liu Xiaobo and his life’s work.
Mark McConaghy is a visiting post-doctoral scholar at Academia Sinica’s Institute for Chinese Literature and Philosophy in Taipei, Taiwan. He completed his PhD studies in modern Chinese cultural history in the Department of East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.