Michael Chan, a minister in the provincial government of Ontario, Canada, recently defended the human rights record of the People’s Republic of China in an interview published at a popular Chinese-language website. While the scope of human rights is very broad, Mr. Chan argued, the rights to survival and basic livelihood are foundational, and China’s progress in moving from survival to basic livelihood through economic growth over the past 40 years makes it an admirable case.
It is ironic that Mr. Chan defends China’s human rights record by claiming that the People’s Republic has preserved the right to “survival.” Subordinating civil and human rights in general to the right to survival has the clear effect of devaluing them and suggesting that rights-deprived citizens should be thankful for merely staying alive.
More importantly, China is not even very good at preserving the right to survival and flourishing. China is, according to Amnesty International, the world’s top executioner, imposing the death penalty thousands of times per year. China’s coercive population control measures entail forcible abortions and sterilizations on a massive scale, as recounted in the memoir of the lawyer and rights activist Chen Guangcheng. Even if the worst days of communist terror and revolution are decades in the past, today’s People’s Republic enforces its will through lethal means. In short, the right to survival is entirely dependent upon the will of the Communist Party.
“Basic livelihood” is also unevenly distributed. While millions of rural Chinese have moved to the cities during China’s long economic boom, the country’s complex internal migration restrictions leave many people in legal limbo. In May of this year, a father in Beijing set himself on fire to protest the fact that he could not find a school place for his daughter
At best, it is condescending for a Canadian government official to believe he must flatter the readers of a Chinese-language website by praising PRC policy. Having an immigrant background doesn’t prevent people from being independent thinkers or mean that they support the government that happens to be in power in the country where they or their parents were born. For that matter, people in foreign countries themselves don’t necessarily want to hear praise of their governments. In dictatorships, the opposite is often the case. Soviet dissidents, like Natan Sharansky, took heart from unambiguous condemnations of the Soviet regime on the part of western powers. Worse would be that Mr. Chan believes what he says. According to a story in Toronto’s Globe and Mail, this is only too possible.
This comes shortly after the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, visiting Ottawa, berated a Canadian reporter for asking the Canadian foreign minister, Stéphane Dion, a question about human rights in China. While Mr. Dion, the intended recipient of the question, stood silently by, Mr. Wang denounced it as “irresponsible” and “groundless” and defended the People’s Republic on familiar grounds: that it has brought the Chinese people material prosperity, and that it does in fact uphold human rights, albeit in a way inscrutable to outsiders: “It’s the Chinese people who most understand China’s human rights record — not you, but the Chinese people themselves.”
The falsity of this claim—that foreigners have neither the understanding nor the right to speak on Chinese human rights—is proven by the fact that the Chinese regime will not even allow its own people to freely discuss their country’s history, laws, and institutions. The regime represses its competitors in the name of its wisdom, authority, and economic prowess.
But in the free world we have no reason—nor any excuse—to overlook the Chinese regime’s crimes. It is unfortunate enough when democratic governments, dazzled by China’s wealth, conveniently forget its manifold human rights abuses and deal with it like any other country. It is inexcusable for a provincial minister to do the same.