China’s foreign minister made headlines in Ottawa this week for all the wrong reasons when he took exception to a question posed by a journalist. But experts say it’s unlikely the Chinese care about the bad press.
“They’ll have to deal with damage control,” former diplomat Colin Robertson told the West Block’s Tom Clark.
“But I’m not sure that they care. There are a number of things that take place that they feel they’re getting bad press (on) from the western media.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion stood next to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, seemingly stunned into silence, as the Chinese politician ripped into a journalist from news website iPolitics. Wang called the question on the jailing of a Canadian, Kevin Garratt, “irresponsible.” The question had not, in fact, even been directed at Wang.
WATCH: China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs blasts Canadian journalist
Current senator and former journalist Jim Munson said he was deeply offended by Wang’s outburst on Canadian soil.
“It was very upsetting,” Munson said.
“He couldn’t have picked a worse time, and particularly for me because I’m quite emotional about this issue, having seen children and adults killed in Tiananmen [Square]. There was a massacre in Tiananmen. And to say this on our territory and to say this about a journalist, my goodness, it hit home again to me what is wrong in China.”
Both Munson and Robertson said that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau now has a responsibility to address themes of press freedom, the consular immunity of Canadians in China and human rights on his next visit to the country.
“Certainly the first public speech that we make over there would probably have to touch on all those three themes,” said Robertson. “Because you do not want to look like you’re going in to deal with the Chinese on the back foot or from a period of weakness.”
— Watch the full panel discussion above.
THE WEST BLOCK
Episode 37, Season 5
Sunday, June 5, 2016
Host: Tom Clark
Guests: Jim Munson, Colin Robertson
Tom Clark: On this Sunday, China’s foreign minister lashes out at a Canadian journalist for asking about human rights. Well, we’ve got a few more questions.
Tom Clark: Well, in Ottawa last week, China’s foreign minister lashed out at a Canadian journalist for having the temerity to ask about human rights in China. And it happened right in front of Canada’s Foreign Minister Stéphane Dion who remained silent throughout. Take a listen to what happened:
Voice of Interpreter speaking for Wang Yi: I have to say that your question is full of prejudice and against China and arrogance where I don’t know where that come[s] from. And this is totally unacceptable.
Tom Clark: Well joining me now is senator and former journalist Jim Munson and former diplomat Colin Robertson. Welcome to you both. You know what’s ironic about this in some sense is this whole thing comes on the 27th anniversary of the slaughter in Tiananmen Square. You were there Jim, I was there. The Chinese then didn’t apologize, haven’t apologized since, and it seems to me that they’re not about to apologize now for what they’ve said in Canada. What’s your take on that it Jim?
Jim Munson: Tom, look Tiananmen never happened as far as the Chinese government is concerned, as far as this foreign minister is concerned. Talk about timing with Mr. Wang Yi in what he said earlier this week. It was very upsetting. He couldn’t have picked a worse time, and particularly for me because I’m quite emotional about this issue, having seen children and adults killed in Tiananmen. There was a massacre in Tiananmen. And to say this is on our territory and to say this about a journalist, my goodness, it hit home again to me what is wrong in China. And it hasn’t gotten any better, I think, in terms of censorship. In terms of an iron-fisted rule of government, it’s gotten even worse.
Tom Clark: Well I can back you up on what happened in Tiananmen Square, both you and I were there. But Colin, from a diplomatic point of view, does this even enter into a sphere of a diplomatic faux pas or is this just something that we have to put up with when it comes to China?
Colin Robertson: Oh, I think a faux pas. Because it’s going to make it more difficult for the government which is anxious to have some kind of a free trade arrangement with China and we do want to sell more to China to be able to frame this in a way that we don’t look as a supplicant. That’s one of the challenges is that we don’t want to look like we’re trying to give up more. And so that’s why the Chinese, from their perspective, this was what I call in baseball terms, an unforced error. This was unnecessary because they too want to have a good relationship with the new Trudeau government. They’ve made a big deal about Mr. Trudeau and they’ve linked it back to when his father was there with Zhou Enlai. They would like to have this go along seamlessly, so this was unforced error. But I do think that in terms of their attitude towards western media, this was entirely reflective, not just of foreign minister, but at the same time that he was in town we had vice-chair from the (inaudible) in and he said similar kinds of things about the media and irresponsible reporting and highly prejudiced.
Tom Clark: And that was behind closed doors that you heard that.
Jim Munson: And aren’t diplomats supposed to use diplomatic language? I mean I’ve been inside the room with a prime minister when these kinds of things go on in human rights in China with prime ministers and with the president and the prime minister of China. I thought he would at least use diplomatic language. You know he could have come into town, left. Nobody knew he was here and yes, laid the groundwork for an economic free trade agreement. But that did not happen.
Colin Robertson: That’s why I say, Jimmy, unforced because the question wasn’t even to him, so unnecessary to do so. And now they’ll have to deal with damage control. But I’m not sure that they care. There are a number of things that take place that they feel they’re getting a bad press from the western media both on human rights and on cyber. I think there’s certainly much more on cyber which they have to be accountable for that we have to hold them accountable.
Tom Clark: I just want to jump in here for a second just to bolster your credentials. Of course Colin, you served time in China in Hong Kong representing Canada.
Colin Robertson: Yes, I was there through Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong and people coming out.
Tom Clark: Listen, part of the story now becomes how did the Canadian government react to this? I mean here we had somebody who, in my analogy, walked into our living room and defecated on our carpet. And we saw that Stéphane Dion, the Canadian foreign minister, stood their stone-faced, didn’t reply, didn’t say anything at all. But I want you to take a listen. On Friday, Stéphane Dion had a conference call and somebody asked him about this incident. And just listen for a second as to what he said:
Stéphane Dion: “I consider Madam Connolly as a professional with a thick skin and she does not need me to go to her rescue.”
Tom Clark: Need me to go to her rescue. It seems to me that he completely missed the point. This was not about defending a journalist. Surely this is a question of defending some basic values. He was a guest in this country and yet the government has remained almost mum on it. Is that acceptable, Jim?
Jim Munson: Not acceptable. I thought that Mr. Dion from the get-go could have stepped into that at a moment, maybe used some humour at that time and just talked about this is Canada, Mr. Foreign Minister. I’ll answer the question for you. We’ll have lots of time to talk about these things. And foreign ministers do have a responsibility to protect the press. Very briefly, after Tiananmen, I was thrown in the Forbidden City jail covering the anniversary of Tiananmen and still living in Beijing. Well there was a former minister, Barbara McDougall who worked in the Mulroney government, who was given a call to get me out of that jail. I mean Canadians are Canadians are Canadians. This happened on our soil. I mean we can be outraged and upset, but I think that Mr. Dion could have used humour, better language to get out of that situation.
Tom Clark: Colin, let me turn this around a little bit, do we have the capacity when you look at the power imbalance between Canada and China. Do we actually have the power or the capacity to say no to China?
Colin Robertson: Well to say no to what?
Tom Clark: Well say no in the sense of if the Chinese say this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to come in, I’m going to say these things, I’m going to demand that I meet with your prime minister and you’re going to step up to the plate on trade deals. Do we have to take it in other words?
Colin Robertson: I think that we want a positive relationship with China. It will serve our long-term interest for us to have a much improved relationship than what we had. I think the prime minister gets that entirely, so he is reaching to the Chinese leadership that as Senator Munson says that it was a missed opportunity by our foreign minister at that point. But with that done, he moved forward. I think the prime minister has responded and said look we stand up for journalistic freedom. This is an opportunity for him but it does make it harder for the government now to move forward because you’ve seen the Opposition criticism that where the Conservative Party’s coming from in particular and with the relationship with China which was always a bit schizophrenic. But this was an opportunity to stand up on both consular immunity of Canadians, Mr. Garratt, as well as human rights and journalist freedoms. So I think that’s something that you’ve seen echoed now by Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Dion in their subsequent comments. And certainly the first public speech that we make over there would probably have to touch on all those three themes for this very reason because you do not want to look like you’re going in to deal with the Chinese on the back foot or from a period of weakness.
Tom Clark: In the minute we’ve got left, that’s a really interesting point. Do we, when Justin Trudeau goes to China in the fall, does he have to say something on Chinese soil that addresses this whole question of a free press?
Jim Munson: He better do that. He must do that. Mr. Trudeau has an opportunity to be straightforward and talk directly to the Chinese people. We’ve had that about 10 years ago when Mitchell Sharp, our former foreign minister, went to speak at a university in Shanghai to students. Under a previous regime, it’s not that long ago, they didn’t seem to be that fearful of Canada’s voice. You know it’s not a big voice in China but it’s an important voice in China. So absolutely, Mr. Trudeau has to speak in a strong language. What are the Chinese leaderships scared of? Because I mean everything that is said in China is censored anyway, but at least it would give our country a good feeling that our prime minister can speak out, not just for journalists, but for free speech.
Colin Robertson: And consistent with how other prime ministers have done so and foreign leaders. So yes, I think Mr. Trudeau will have to and will do so.
Tom Clark: I want to thank you both for this insight from two people who really know China extremely well. Collin Robertson and Senator Munson, thank you very much for being here. I appreciate it.