Huseyin Celil, a 38-year-old Chinese-born ethnic Uighur who fled to Canada in 2001 and then obtained Canadian citizenship in 2005, was sentenced on April 19 by a Chinese court to life imprisonment for the crimes of "separating China and ... organizing, leading and participating in terrorist groups [or] organizations."
Celil was first arrested in Uzbekistan and thence spirited to China, where he had been imprisoned for the past year before receiving his sentence.
Given that Celil has Canadian citizenship and in light of the Canadian government's awarding earlier this year of generous financial compensation to Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen of Syrian origin who in 2002 was deported from the US to Syria, where he was allegedly tortured, Celil's family would perhaps be right to hope that Ottawa will do its utmost to come to his assistance. After all, although it came ex post facto and after years of denial, Canadian authorities did come clean on the Arar case, setting a precedent in the international campaign against terrorism which aside from the awarding of reparations worth approximately US$10 million to Arar and an admission of guilt on the role government agencies played in his deportation, forced the chief of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police -- Canada's equivalent of the FBI, loosely put -- to step down.
Sadly for Celil and precedent notwithstanding, he is unlikely to receive much help from Ottawa -- or the rest of the international community, for that matter. And the reason is simple: China.
It is one thing for Canada to reprimand Syria on human rights for the very real possibility that individuals in its prison system are being badly treated, if not tortured. In fact, by launching a commission of inquiry into the matter of Arar's deportation and later on admitting that he had been wronged, Ottawa had chosen to side with one of its citizens not only against Syria but the US as well, which to this day refuses to grant him a chance to make his case in a US court and will not remove him from its long list of terror suspects. There is real cause for hope when a country goes to this length to defend one of its own, especially in the context of the campaign against terrorism and the inherent pressure from the US upon states to participate in the effort.
But hapless Celil has a tremendous handicap: China's economy and the lure it has, siren-song-like, on other countries. Statistics from Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada show that Canada's total trade with China last year was close to C$42 billion (US$37.3 billion), while two-way trade with Syria for the same period was approximately C$72 million. China's GDP was estimated at US$2.225 trillion in 2005. Syria's was US$25.84 billion.
Given these statistics, as former Los Angeles Times Beijing bureau chief James Mann points out in his book The China Fantasy, in recent years states have refrained from saying, let alone doing, anything "provocative" that is likely to "anger" Beijing, as doing so could have implications on trade. Given the size of the Chinese market and its vaunted potential for growth, Canada is not immune to this pressure and despite its envious, albeit imperfect, human rights track record, it, too, allows money to trump human rights. It is one thing to "anger" Damascus and put bilateral trade at risk; it is quite another when it comes to China.
All of this means that Canadian authorities will likely limit themselves to the usual mild criticism, meant for domestic consumption, of China's detention of Celil. Following news of his life sentence, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he had "raised the issue" with Chinese President Hu Jintao (
Anyone remotely aware of China's human rights track record knows how effective "raising issues" with Beijing has been when it comes to the numerous dissidents it has locked up in its prisons.
This empty rhetoric, which reached its peak level when, in February, Harper said of the Celil matter: "I would point out to any Chinese official that just as a matter of fact, China had a huge trade surplus with this country, so it would be in the interest of the Chinese government to make sure any dealings on trade are fair and above board," will avail to nothing if it is not supported by concrete action -- sanctions, embassy recalls and the like -- as mere words are immediately met by Chinese officials telling foreign governments not to meddle in its "domestic affairs" and that insistence can only "strain relations" -- a song unfortunately repeated ad nauseum by the media.
Already, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Liu Jianchao (
And the threats seem to have hit home.
Just one day after the announcement of Celil's sentence, Ottawa's rhetoric had already shown signs of softening. There were no longer questions of the injustice of the arrest, or the fact that Celil had been rendered from Uzbekistan (a country whose human rights record tellingly pales in comparison with China's) or, for that matter, of the absence of due process in his sentencing, including China's refusal to recognize his Canadian citizenship and, consequently, barring Canadian consular officials from getting in touch with him -- something even the Syrian government, a so-called state sponsor of terrorism, would not deny Arar, except on a few occasions. In one day, Canadian authorities had gone from opposing Celil's very detention to evaluating "allegations that Mr. Celil has been mistreated while in Chinese custody and possibly subjected to torture," to quote the Canadian foreign minister. In other words, Canada was no longer voicing direct opposition to the life sentence but rather to the possibility that he had been mistreated while in prison.
Harper was right when, back in February, he said that given China's C$9 billion trade surplus with Canada, it stood to lose much more from an interruption in the relationship than Canada does. Unfortunately, however, it isn't current numbers that have a real effect on how trade wags diplomacy, but rather expected future ones. Just as the promise of access to the Chinese market has allowed China to almost completely isolate Taiwan and Tibet, its attraction will ensure that rhetorical jousting aside, nothing will change and Celil, sadly, will not receive the assistance he is entitled to as a Canadian citizen.
MacKay will indeed "raise the issue" with his Chinese counterparts when he visits Beijing and for a few weeks politicians in Ottawa will make their sound bites by repeating that they will "stand tall for that citizen." In other words, Ottawa and Beijing will engage in the shadow play of a diplomatic spat; Canada will wax righteous and China will warn of dire consequences for the relationship. But gradually, the story will taper off into oblivion, just as will Celil.
J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.
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