Finding Canada's Achilles' heel

By J. Michael Cole 寇謚將  / 

Wed, Jan 16, 2008 - Page 8

During his trip to China last week, Canadian Trade Minister David Emerson said he was prepared to appeal to the WTO to force China to allow its citizens to visit Canada as tourists, hoping to overturn a longstanding policy on Beijing's part that Emerson argues is hurting the Canadian economy.

While Beijing allows Chinese nationals to visit about 130 countries, Canada -- a major trade partner of China -- continues to be denied Approved Destination Status (ADS). Beijing's negotiation of an ADS agreement with the US, meanwhile, is putting Canada's tourism industry at a disadvantage, Ottawa argues. Chinese tourists visiting the US would, if permitted by Beijing, likely include parts of Canada in their itinerary. Furthermore, ADS would allow Canadian travel companies to promote travel packages on the Chinese market.

Emerson and Ottawa deny having been informed of the reasons why talks on the matter, begun in 2005, have stalled, but observers speculate that Ottawa's refusal to hand over fugitive refugee claimant Lai Changxing (賴昌星), wanted in China on smuggling charges, may be behind the impasse.

This request has caused the Canadian government many headaches.

Canadian law stipulates that an individual can only be extradited if, after conducting a pre-removal risk assessment (PRRA), the government is confident that the individual, along with his or her relatives, will not, in line with the Geneva Convention, be persecuted, tortured or subjected to cruel or unusual treatment after being handed over to the claimant.

Since Lai fled from Hong Kong to Vancouver in 1999, Ottawa has conducted a number of PRRAs, and the conclusions -- which should be fairly easy to imagine, conditions in China being what they are -- did not vary much over the years.

But last year Beijing gave Ottawa assurances it would not execute Lai if he were extradited, resulting in a ruling that Lai could safely be handed over to Chinese authorities. That decision was then overturned by Federal Court Justice Yves de Montigny, who wisely countered that Beijing's promises were hardly reliable. As a result, Lai remains in Canada, a circumstance that continues to poison relations between Ottawa and Beijing.

Another reason given for the stalled ADS talks is Canada's "fierce" -- as one news agency recently put it -- criticism of China about human rights and, late last year, the official visit of the Dalai Lama to Ottawa, where he was received by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Fierce"? Hungry with trade opportunities and seeking to level the imbalance in the US$42 billion two-way trade between the two countries (China is now Canada's third-largest export market), Ottawa's so-called criticism of Beijing's deplorable record on human rights has been anything but fierce. In fact, as Emerson's visit has highlighted, Canada has been more than willing to feign myopia to maximize its chances of doing business with China.

The criticism theory does not hold water as a reason for Beijing denying Canada an ADS agreement, as Ottawa's criticism of Beijing has not been more vociferous than that of other countries, such as the US, with whom China has tourism agreements.

With China's hunger for trade (including tourism) as ebullient as Canada's, the sticking point must therefore be sufficiently threatening to Beijing as to compel it to sacrifice its opportunities. So what is it?

Despite its size, Canada's political footprint on the international scene is rather light and, unlike the US, its military presence abroad does not threaten China in any imaginable way. Politically, Ottawa recognized Beijing even before Washington did and has unwaveringly entertained ties ever since. Its position on Taiwan, meanwhile, has been consistent and can hardly be characterized as favoring Taipei over Beijing. It doesn't even have constituents, as in the US Congress, who are "supporters" of Taiwan.

It seems, therefore, that the only point of contention between Ottawa and Beijing would be Canada's aforementioned extradition laws, which, as they are tougher than those of most other countries, could pose an embarrassing problem for Beijing if, through an ADS agreement, ordinary Chinese nationals now had a legitimate means (other than human smuggling) to reach Canada's shores, where they could claim refugee status.

Canada has hinted it would rather not have to take the ADS dispute to the WHO, and to avoid that happening Beijing will likely offer to make concessions in exchange for a few favors.

One such favor could very well be Lai's extradition.

Whether one regards him as China's "most-wanted fugitive," as the official Xinhua news agency has characterized him, or, to quote his defenders, the "leader of the free market," the former head of the Yuanhua Group in Xiamen cannot be used as a sacrificial lamb by Canada -- even if his extradition could result in the resumption of negotiations on an ADS agreement.

The temptation will be a strong one. But to yield on an issue of such fundamental importance as a commitment to prevent torture wherever it may occur over trade and tourism opportunities would be an unforgivable Faustian deal on Canada's part, one that would undermine the very moral fabric of the nation.

J. Michael Cole is a writer based in Taipei.