Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi predicted a “new golden age” for relations with Canada in Ottawa on Wednesday, but this forecast was overshadowed by his irritable outburst at a Canadian journalist. Amanda Connolly of the Ottawa-based iPolitics aimed a wide-ranging question to Wang’s Canadian counterpart Stéphane Dion on behalf of several Canadian media organizations. She asked how concerns about China’s detentions of Hong Kong booksellers and Canadian expats and aggressive assertion of territorial claims in the South China Sea had affected the new Liberal government’s policy towards it. Wang decried the question as prejudiced, arrogant, unacceptable, irresponsible, and groundless, claiming that “it’s the Chinese people who most understand China’s human rights record — not you.”
His comments reminded cartoonist Badiucao of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose Democratic rival Hillary Clinton criticized him today as “thin-skinned” and prone to lashing out. Badiucao took to Photoshop to illustrate the comparison:
The New York Times’ Chris Buckley translated Wang’s indignant response in full:
“I want to make a response to the questions that the journalist has just raised concerning China. Your question was full of prejudice against China and an arrogance that comes from I don’t know where. This is totally unacceptable to me. Do you understand China? Have you been to China? Do you know that China has come from a poor and backward state and lifted more than 600 million people from poverty? Do you know that China is now the world’s second biggest economy with $8,000 per capita? If we weren’t able to properly protect human rights, would China have achieved such great development? Do you know that China has incorporated protecting human rights into its Constitution? I want to tell you that it’s the Chinese people who most understand China’s human rights record — not you, but the Chinese people themselves. You have no right to speak on this. The Chinese people have the right to speak. So please don’t raise such irresponsible questions again. China welcomes all well-meaning suggestions, but we reject all groundless accusations.”
Insisting that “it’s the Chinese people who most understand China’s human rights record” is a standard retort to foreign criticism. Xi Jinping deployed it in London last year, for example, while Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying used it in January in response to Human Rights Watch’s annual report. The principle is often expressed as: “Only the wearer knows if the shoe fits.” After Xi uttered the phrase in Moscow in 2013, blogger Wuyuesanren commented:
My take on the shoe-and-foot question: Whoever buys the shoes has the last word. The common people pay taxes, so they have the right to say whether or not the shoe fits, as well as the style they want. A well-chosen pair of shoes also comes with a warranty and the privilege to exchange or return the items. The shoes themselves don’t have the qualifications to say whether they fit or not. Shoes that do aren’t shoes, they’re shackles. [Source]
In the Party's view, individual Chinese are not meant to freely share their own understandings of China’s human record. Those who criticize it “can’t be regarded as a mainstream force,” likely “don’t understand the actual situation,” and may face detention or worse. Voicing the people’s judgment should ideally be left to the Party itself, which according to its own axiom represents “the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the people of China.”
The “Chinese people” who truly understand the country’s human rights situation therefore seem to be the same as those with “hurt feelings” in another well-worn piece of official rhetoric. China Media Project’s David Bandurski examined their identity when the phrase resurfaced in January:
Power is the deeper question at the root of these “feelings.” And the people, the abstracted renmin (人民), are upset when the Chinese Communist Party wills it.
On January 11, political scientist Qiao Mu (乔木) wrote on his own blog that the recently minted phrase “Zhao Family,” [see background via CDT] which has come to stand for China’s power elite, was a skeleton key that could unlock phrases like “hurting the feelings of the Chinese people,” and “old friends of the Chinese people.”
“Now,” Qiao wrote, “all you need to do is replace ‘the people’ with ‘the Zhao family,’ and everything becomes clear all at once.”
Qiao is by no means the only one to feel this way. Following the nationally televised “confession” of Swedish national Peter Dahlin on January 20, in which he said he had “hurt the feelings of the Chinese people,” one Weibo user rejoined:
To those foreigners saying on TV that they hurt the feelings of the Chinese people, let me just say that I am one of these Chinese people, and my feelings haven’t been hurt at all. I think the only feelings you’ve hurt are those of the Zhao Family. [Source]
Another of Wang’s challenges to the reporter's qualification, asking whether she had been to China, echoed a confrontation this week between the apparently official Twitter account of China’s State Council Information Office and other users including Tibet activists. “Have u ever been to Tibet bro?” it asked, adding “truth ain’t lie dude, know yourself.”
The global economic ranking and GDP per capita that Wang cited in China's defense are not recognized as accurate barometers of rights by China’s "Human Rights Record of the United States," an annual retort to the U.S. State Department’s "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices."
As Wang said, China’s national constitution does enshrine a number of important human rights, but Xi Jinping’s early emphasis on “governing in accordance with the constitution” was soon toned down. It flared back up with the institution of a new public holiday in 2014, but in practice, constitutional guarantees offer little protection, and many activists calling for the government to honor them have been jailed. U.S. President Barack Obama’s speech in Vietnam last week, in which he urged the Vietnamese government to protect the rights in its own constitution, was the subject of a recently leaked deletion order within China.
Wang’s outburst is the latest in a string of increasingly forceful moves to push Chinese interests and perspectives overseas. Just the last few days have seen reports of China voting to marginalize NGOs at the United Nations and alarming observers with aggressive media acquisitions in Australia. At The News Lens, Taiwan expert J. Michael Cole argued that although “an increasingly assertive Chinese Communist Party doesn’t want us to look too closely into China’s eroding human rights situation and activities abroad […] We must keep at it, or we’ll all lose.”
Many people continue to point out the many deficiencies in the Chinese system, the CCP’s grip on power among them, and do so at the risk of being barred access for their academic work, or of seeing their visa cancelled and face expulsion.
[…] Increasingly, China has also resorted to threats and intimidation—including the possibility of taking legal action—to silence academics and journalists who are shedding light on China’s complex, and increasingly global, network of agencies, some of which are engaged in activities that may be detrimental to democratic institutions abroad.
Worryingly, China now takes such action outside its borders with growing frequency (it has already taken such action on three continents). This type of extraterritoriality will have to be countered at some point, otherwise journalistic freedom will be undermined on a global scale. For one thing, courts and law firms outside China should avoid taking up cases that risk making them complicit in the CCP’s assault on international freedom of the press. It is no longer enough for China to silence its critics at home; it is now turning its sights on those who do that from the outside.
If China is to become a normal member of the international community, it will have to become a responsible stakeholder and not, as it is currently, a catalyst for the erosion of freedoms on a grand scale. In order to do so, it will have to learn to live with, if not to embrace, criticism.
It very clearly isn’t there yet, and its refusal to absorb criticism suggests that in the end, the CCP remains a very fragile animal indeed. [Source]
Reuters’ David Ljunggren, meanwhile, reported on Dion’s own reply to the offending question:
Dion, part of the new Liberal government led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said that while Canada wanted closer trade ties with China, it would not hesitate to speak out on sensitive matters.
In January, China indicted Canadian citizen Kevin Garratt on charges of spying and stealing state secrets. He was detained in August 2014 near China’s sensitive border with North Korea.
“The case … of Mr Garratt has been raised by the prime minister and by myself,” Dion told reporters after talks with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
“We never miss an opportunity to raise human rights, but the details should not be revealed publicly for the sake of Mr. Garratt. It’s something the two governments will have to work together (on),” he said.
[…] A Trudeau spokesman declined to answer when asked about the prime minister’s talks with Wang on Garratt. [Source]