NOTES FOR AN ADDRESS BY SENATOR JIM MUNSON AT THE MUNK CENTRE CANADA-CHINA CONFERENCE

Thank you for inviting me to take part in this very interesting session.  We’ve heard from other speakers about trade, Chinese communities, academic and security issues, and about development efforts in China.

 

Personal Perspective

I’ve been asked to provide a media perspective on China, which I am honoured to do.  I can offer you the particularly personal perspective of a journalist who had a job to do – to report the news about China to Canadians — from 1987 to 1992.   I witnessed the events of Tianamen Square.

 

I witnessed the beating of monks in Tibet and heard their stories of repression.  I even spent some time in a Chinese jail and was forced to hand over tapes of what we had witnessed.

 

But we kept a few tapes.  And in one of the most extreme experiences of culture shock I have ever experienced, I flew out of remote Lhasa, Tibet to downtown Tokyo within a day so that we could air the tapes we had managed to keep.  I had to fly to Japan because I was not free to fully practice my profession as a journalist in China and inform Canadians of facts and events.

If I was able to succeed as a journalist in China, it was because I was a Canadian journalist, with certain rights and privileges that included freedom of expression.  Such was not the case for my Chinese colleagues.

 

In China, you cannot talk about the media, without talking about human rights.  There are laws governing freedom of expression that are brutally enforced.  There are laws governing media outlets, including Internet providers.  During my five years there, I learned that in China, the state controls both the medium and the message.

 

Human Rights

The issue of human rights in China touches all facets of life.  Amnesty International reports that tens of thousands of people continue to be detained or imprisoned for peacefully exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, or belief.

 

We have a responsibility to speak out about human rights abuses in China.  The people there cannot.  China does not allow the existence of domestic human rights groups and blocks interventions by international human rights groups.

 

Although the world can influence the Chinese state, we must know that the Chinese people will not hear about our efforts.  The urging of a Prime Minister to uphold human rights might be heard by Chinese leaders, but his words won’t be reported in the Chinese media.  We should have no illusions.

 

Economics and Human Rights

The world is full of wonder for the great economic engine of China.  But I think it’s important to bear in mind that it takes more than a strong economy to build a strong nation.

 

Unbridled economic growth in China is leading to a growing divide between rich and poor.  Labour disputes are on the rise.  Protests about low wages, corruption, lay-offs, and dangerous working conditions are often met with excessive use of force by authorities.  The lawyers who defend protestors, and the journalists who write about them, are often intimidated and arrested themselves.

 

Most workers in China do not receive adequate wages.  Their work places have minimal health and safety protections.  They lack the right to organize into unions.

 

Many workers have lost their jobs and pensions when the state-owned enterprises that employed them were privatized or went bankrupt.

 

Internet

The authorities in China believe that the boundaries of the state extend into cyperspace.  According to Human Rights Watch, at least sixty sets of regulations have been introduced to control access to the Internet in China and to control the information that is accessed by Internet users.

 

People must register with the neighbourhood police within thirty days of signing up for an Internet Service Provider.  Service providers must record and store for sixty days which web addresses users access.  Material provided on web sites must undergo security inspection and approval.  In one Beijing Internet café security personnel stroll behind computer units and read over the shoulders of the clients.  In another area more high tech methods are used.  Police have installed software to filter content to Internet users.  Several people are serving long prison sentences for circulating political information over the Internet.

 

Banned content could include information about Falun Gong, Taiwan, or Tibet.

 

Internet surveillance and increased censorship is leading to an upsurge in arrests.  Users of the Internet in China cannot access certain sites that government officials consider to be sensitive.  Content on Internet sites must be officially cleared.  Electronic mail is routinely monitored and sponsored.  Human Rights Watch reports that China is training “cyber-police” to monitor the activities of Chinese activists outside the country.

 

International Relations

It’s probably clear by now that I don’t buy into the argument that trade relations with China trump concerns for human rights.  There are two Chinas developing now:  the China that is benefiting from soaring economic growth, and the China that is paying for the soaring economic growth.

 

There was optimism in 2003 that leadership changes in China would result in greater respect for human rights.  We are still waiting.

 

When the SARS epidemic first broke out, human health was put at risk by authorities who covered up the story.  After international business and tourism declined as a result of the epidemic, 100 health officials were fired and the Chinese state offered promises of openness.  But early this year, when SARS reappeared in Guangdong province, there was a crackdown on the newspaper that reported it.

 

Clearly, a free media is an essential element of a society that respects human rights.  Journalists cannot be manipulated as state-controlled story tellers.

 

A free press, in all its forms, is nothing less than a barometer for democracy.  It is something that we cannot do without.

 

Canada should not lose sight of that fact and should understand the limits of a friendship based on trade.  Yes, a good trading relationship with China is important, but it is not the most important thing.  We must ensure our international relations reflect and uphold the values we ourselves live by.