China--trade or human rights: which comes first? The Canadian model.

AuthorGuiora, Amos N.
  1. General Overview

    The question of whether trade and human rights are naturally at odds has been the subject of numerous articles, commentary, political discussion and debate. (1) The issue was much discussed in 1974 when Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson (D-Wash) and Congressman Charles Vanik (R-Ohio) introduced the so-called "Jackson-Vanik" Amendment, which denied normal trade relations to countries with non-market economies and emigration restrictions. More specifically, it addressed then Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev's implementation of a tax that effectively prevented individuals studying in the USSR from emigrating, even if it prevented them from returning to their families.

    The legislation's significance was clear: the human rights policies of a potential trading partner may dictate the extent to which trade will occur. But such policies are not always affected through legislation. The recent "globalization" of the international community has resulted in more nations making policy statements intended to cajole other states into improving their human rights stance. Canada's recent dealings with China highlight just such a policy.

    On November 15, 2006, the Canadian Prime Minister, Right Honourable Stephen Harper, made comments regarding Canadian trade with China that became the subject of much discussion. Speaking to reporters about the two countries' relationship while en-route to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Conference in Hanoi, Harper said, "I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don't think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values--our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights ... they don't want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar...." (2) The Prime Minister's comments drew an immediate response both supporting and attacking the policy. Comments critical of the stance focused on two points: that it would negatively affect Canadian business interests and that Canada was interfering in internal Chinese politics. Favorable comments perceived the Prime Minister's stance as principled--he refused to make financial interests paramount to the rights of individuals.

    The Prime Minister's comments, however, were not a complete surprise. Canada has been involved in bilateral human rights discussions with China since 1997, and in 1990, Canada sponsored the first resolution addressing the status of human rights in China submitted to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. (3)

    China initially responded to Prime Minister Harper's comments by canceling proposed talks between the Prime Minister and China's president, Hu Jintao, as the Chinese felt that Canada had made "irresponsible remarks about internal affairs." (4) Although the talks were later rescheduled, it was clear that the Chinese were not pleased with Prime Minister Harper's comments. Some observed that, "The Chinese have sent a very strong message to Canada--that they're not very happy with the way the Tory government has shown its support for the Dalai Lama and taken a stand on human rights in China." (5)

    In the months that followed, the relationship between Canada and China cooled. Though both nations indicated a desire to engage in dialogue they expressed concerns over each other's conduct. In late January 2007, Canada initiated what many viewed as a "softer" approach to China in the hopes of reinvigorating their relationship. (6) Commentators suggested that both parties expressed an interest in engaging in economic relations described as "cold on the political side and warm economically." (7)

    The ensuing talks, however, seem to have achieved little. In early February, China made what Canadians perceived as economic threats intended to prevent Canada from pursuing its human rights agenda. Prime Minister Harper responded by "reminding" China that Canada is the one with the leverage; that is, Canada chooses whether to buy Chinese goods and, in addition, Canada possesses oil China desires.

    In determining to affect domestic policy of a sovereign nation, an "activist" nation invites international and domestic criticism alike, the former with respect to intervening in the domestic affairs of another sovereign, the latter raising concerns regarding economic damage at home. Prime Minister Harper has staked a clear position--whether this will be established and lead to an economic backlash will be determined. Nevertheless, in direct contrast to nations who turn either a "blind eye" or adopt a policy best described as a "wink and a nod," the Canadian Prime Minister has articulated an unequivocal position directly linking future trade between the two nations to China's domestic human rights policy.

    1. The Status of Human Rights in China

      In examining the link between the two issues, it is important to both describe and explain China's human rights policy and practices. After the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, human rights in China became a concern of many nations of the world. While conventional wisdom holds that human rights conditions improved dramatically in the aftermath of the massacre, recent reports suggest that recently they have taken a turn for the worse. (8) Chinese legislation expected to reform hot-button issues, including property ownership laws, the death penalty, and procedural rights, have lost momentum or been shelved altogether. (9) Although civil rights movements are found within China, (10) they are small, largely underground, and their survival is constantly threatened by government suppression and "in-house" conflict regarding how best to effectuate the desired changes. (11) The government has stepped up its restraint of individuals it perceives to be critical of its domestic policies. Measures to implement restraint on individuals suspected of political activism include incommunicado detention, electronic and physical surveillance, and restriction on domestic and international travel. (12) Frequently the government's efforts to silence its critics occur without arrest, thereby avoiding the unwanted international spotlight arrests can bring. Nevertheless, when arrests do occur, they are frequently the result of vague or ill-defined crimes. (13)

      China cites a recent constitutional amendment guaranteeing human rights and private property ownership as indicative of the improving status of human rights within the country. (14) Furthermore, China is a signatory to numerous international human rights treaties. However, Human Rights Watch speaks for many when it suggests that China "remains a one-party state that does not hold national elections, has no independent judiciary, leads the world in executions, aggressively censors the Internet, bans independent trade unions, and represses minorities such as the Tibetans, Uighurs, and Mongolians." (15) Finally, attempts by international governments and nongovernmental organizations to approach the Chinese government regarding these issues are frequently rejected due to China's perspective on sovereignty in the context of international relations.

    2. Sovereignty

      The concept of sovereignty defies a single universal definition. At the most general level, sovereignty refers to a political institution's supreme authority over a territory. (16) The...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT