The Current

The West needs 'collective action' to push China on human rights: expert

This week marks the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China, but tensions between Canada and the superpower have been on the rise in recent years. We speak to a panel of experts about the West's evolving relationship with China.

There is currently 'a united front in rhetoric,' not action, says Lynette Ong

Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, but relations with Canada have been strained in recent years. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)
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The West needs to push China "very, very hard on human rights," but it's not something one country can do alone, according to an expert on the country.

"I think the way to go about it is collective action," said Lynette Ong, a professor of political science at the University of Toronto who specializes in China. 

She told The Current's Laura Lynch that while she sees "a united front in rhetoric, I'm not sure whether there's any united front in action."

"I think a united front in action would mean that you actually have to put money on the table, which I think a lot of Western democracies, despite lip service, still lack the courage to do," she said.

Tuesday marks the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China, but relations with Canada have been strained in recent years.

Two Canadian citizens have been detained in China on accusations of stealing state secrets, but it has been alleged that their detention is retaliation for Canada's arrest of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou for extradition to the U.S. on fraud charges.

Michael Spavor, left, and former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig, right, were taken into custody in China in December last year. (Associated Press/International Crisis Group/Canadian Press)

Earlier this year, China also blocked or delayed Canadian exports of canola, peas and soybeans.

Former diplomat Gordon Houlden said that "unfortunately there's no quick fix."

"Try and tell western farmers or eastern lobster fishermen" to forgo the successful trade they're having with China, said Houlden, who is now director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. 

He told told Lynch that on the other hand, try to tell Canadians "that we shouldn't care about human rights."

"It's one of those conundrums, those challenges, that is not going to be easily undone, or fixed."

To discuss the West's evolving relationship with China, Lynch spoke with:

  • Teng Biao, a dissident human rights lawyer from China, now living in exile in the U.S. 
  • Lynette Ong, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, and a China specialist. 
  • Gordon Houlden, former diplomat who has worked in Beijing and Hong Kong, now director of the China Institute at the University of Alberta. 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Allie Jaynes and Jennifer Chen.

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