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Irwin Cotler, MP

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Twenty-five years after Tiananmen Square

Posted on June 3, 2014

(As published in The Gazette)

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, which culminated with the June 4 massacre of hundreds of students and other pro-democracy protesters by Chinese troops. Sadly, as people in China and around the world remember and reflect upon the protesters’ courage and sacrifice, China’s government continues to deny that the brutal crackdown occurred, to target those who commemorate it, and to violate the human rights of the Chinese people.

Various government, NGO, and media sources have reported that activists, lawyers and rights groups attempting to call attention to this sombre anniversary have been detained, arrested, tortured and – in at least one case – disappeared. Indeed, the people of China remain subject to much the same repression and oppression that were at issue a quarter-century ago.

Human Rights Watch, the U.S. State Department and human rights NGO Initiatives for China describe a country in which human-rights advocates are subjected to police monitoring, imprisonment and torture; the legal system lacks judicial independence, while the government is in standing violation of its international treaty obligations; journalists who report on restricted topics have been detained, assaulted or killed; religious worship is limited to practices approved of by the government; women are subjected to a variety of abuses, including forced abortions and the practice of gendercide; babies have been kidnapped by government workers to be sold for adoption; and ethnic minorities endure massive repression.

When, in recent years, investigators entered China to make inquiries into its forced labour camps, prisons and use of torture, the Chinese government made every effort to prevent them from gathering information, just as it sought to restrict information about the events in Tiananmen Square.

Among the most heinous of human rights abuses is the harvesting of organs from prisoners – notably practitioners of Falun Gong – against their will. In 2013, former Vice-Minister of Health Huang Jiefu reported that over half of organ donations come from prisoners. In an effort to combat this abhorrent practice, I have introduced a private member’s bill (C-561) that would create penal sanctions in Canada for anyone involved in transplanting organs without the donor’s consent.

One notable political prisoner is the founder of the overseas China democracy movement and McGill University graduate Wang Bingzhang, who was illegally abducted from Vietnam in 2002 and convicted on trumped-up charges of espionage and terrorism following a secret, one-day trial in which he was denied the right to speak, and who has been languishing in solitary confinement.

Wang’s daughter, Ti-Anna, was raised in Montreal and named for Tiananmen Square. Earlier this year, she took the case for her father’s freedom – which is the case for the freedom of all Chinese political prisoners, and for rights and democracy in China – to the UN Human Rights Council.

Like Ti-Anna, Canada must commemorate through advocacy and action the events for which she is named, notably by placing human rights at the heart of our relations with China. When Stephen Harper first became prime minister, he declared that, with respect to trade with China, “I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values. They don’t want us to sell that out to the almighty dollar.”

Regrettably, Canadian policy toward China seems increasingly focused on economic “net benefit,” as exemplified by last year’s CNOOC-Nexen deal that saw the Harper government approve the sale of a Canadian corporation with a model human rights record to a Chinese state-owned corporation with a suspect human rights record. We support engagement with China, including trade relations, but if Canada’s relationship with China becomes primarily concerned with ensuring a financial upside – if we ignore the Chinese government’s gross violations of human rights in favour of the “almighty dollar” to which the prime minister referred years ago – we acquiesce to the imprisonment of Wang and others who have sacrificed their freedom for the sake of human rights, and we insult the memory of those brave young students who stood up to tanks in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago.

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