China has a terrible record of human rights abuses. According to Amnesty International, in spite of progress over the past few years, in 2004 tens of thousands of Chinese were imprisoned and tortured, thousands were sentenced to death or executed without fair trial, and political activists and dissenters-including queer ones-continue to be the targets of discrimination and brutality at the hands of Chinese authorities.
Perhaps the human rights issue that gets the most press in Canada is Falon Gong, a Chinese, pacifist, pseudo-religious group that claims its members are routinely tortured, imprisoned, and murdered by Chinese authorities. Falon Gong members in Vancouver have held a 24/7 protest vigil outside the Chinese consulate on Granville St near 16th Ave since 2001. They have a shack there and a number of protest signs.
China doesn’t just let its citizens vacation wherever they please, and in January of 2005, federal cabinet minister David Emerson (yes, him) announced that the Canadian government had entered into negotiations with China to become an approved travel destination for China’s growing tourist class. That designation would allow millions of Chinese tourists and their wallets to visit Canada and attend the Olympics in 2010. Most of those tourists would arrive at the airport in Vancouver. They’d then presumably drive up Granville St, past the Chinese consulate and the Falon Gong protest, on their way into the city.
Since January 2005, Beijing has approved dozens of new travel destinations, but there’s still no agreement in place with Canada. Information about what’s taking so long hasn’t been made public, Ottawa says, because negotiations are still underway, but speculation in the media has centered on the case of Lai Changxing.
Lai is wanted by Chinese authorities in connection with a multi-billion dollar smuggling ring in China. He came with his family to Vancouver in 1999 and has been living here and fighting extradition ever since. He says he will be tortured and executed by Chinese authorities if the Canadian courts send him back.
On Jun 1, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that Lai could remain in Vancouver while he continues his extradition fight. “The issue of assurances lies at the heart of the debate,” wrote the judge in the case, suggesting that although China had promised not to execute Lai, there was essentially no way to be sure.
That very same day, Colin Hansen, BC Minister of Economic Development and Minister responsible for the Asia Pacific Initiative and the Olympics just so happened to be on his way to Japan, fresh from an official butt-kissing tour of China.
“When I’m in China I’m basically going to seek every opportunity I can to make sure that [approved destination status] is on the agenda,” he told Canadian Press before he left. Hansen did not come home with a destination status agreement, but on May 25, while he was in Guangzhou, Vancouver mayor Sam Sullivan just so happened to meet with members of the Falon Gong in Vancouver to tell them, as mayor, he was suddenly on a city bylaw-enforcing kick. He told them the shack and signs they had in front of the consulate had to go. Of course, Sullivan says it’s just been something he’s been meaning to get to, that no pressure came from the Chinese consulate and that it’s all about enforcing bylaws fairly.
Regardless of what’s going on behind the scenes, the optics on this one are at least as bad as the James Green for Mayor campaign last year.
“My personal values are that I endorse human rights. I endorse people’s rights to be who they are… I am wholly supportive of LGBTQ people being who they are. I think they should be supported by the community. When it comes to any group-be they developers, bar owners, casino owners, residents, rate payers groups-I don’t endorse giving one group an advantage over another.
“The issues people see in me go beyond being queer, being Guyanese or being disabled. I want good, ethical, honest government. I want decisions by policy and not by politics.”
That’s what Sullivan told me when I interviewed him during last fall’s civic election campaign.
I’d hate to think that human rights can be traded away for a few tourist dollars. I hope Beijing doesn’t decide Canada’s too gay for Chinese tourists.