OTTAWA (CCN) — Countries like Canada — even the Holy See — should be cautious engaging with China, warned Canada’s former Ambassador of Religious Freedom.
“We should be under no illusion that as China engages more and more with the political, economic and social frameworks of the world, that that is having any impact on their human rights record,” Andrew Bennett told the sixth annual Parliamentary Forum on Religious Freedom April 3. Instead of improving through this engagement, “they remain unmoved.”
“This is a cautionary tale for those countries such as Canada and our allies that seek to have a deeper relationship with China” on trade, defence and other matters, Bennett said. “We need to hold the Chinese government’s feet to the fire.”
The Chinese government recognizes a handful of state-approved Patriotic Associations for various religions, including the Catholic faith.
“The Holy See is now in a process of trying to reach some kind of consensus with the Chinese government on the role between the Catholic Patriotic Association and the Roman Catholic Church,” Bennett said. “I would caution the Holy See to be careful about whom they are engaging with, because there seems to be no desire on the part of the Chinese government to shift their approach, certainly not with Catholics.”
“China consistently is placed at or near the top of countries that have the worst record in terms of government restrictions (of religious freedom),” Bennett said, noting the latest Pew Forum research placed China at “at the very top.”
“Too often we treat China as special,” as if it merely represents different values and a different culture, Bennett said. “This is an argument for moral relativism at its worst. Either we defend religious freedom or not.”
David Mulroney, the former Canadian Ambassador to China and now president and vice-chancellor of St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, said the Chinese government is in the grip of a “blood-stained ideology” that reduces everything to a material and atheistic perspective.
The Chinese Communist Party experiences “deep anxiety” because it is “perpetually insecure in its hold on power, and it explains some ways the inclination to repress, punish and silence those who aspire to a deeper and richer vision of human possibility,” Mulroney said. Not only is the party deeply fearful of religious belief, but also of “thinkers, painters and poets.”
Mulroney described his “perspective from the coal face,” working as the “lead diplomat” in China in the months leading up to the creation of the Office of Religious Freedom and Bennett’s post as ambassador.
“I’m a Catholic and therefore tend to see faith and belief as natural and necessary shapers of human behaviour,” he said.
As Canadian ambassador, Mulroney travelled throughout China to spend time with faith groups, whether Catholic, Muslim, Tibetan Buddhist. He attended an illegal Protestant house church “operating outside of the control and approval of the party.”
“We were all complicit in an illegal act, daring to worship in something other than a space designated by the state,” he said. “But we were also enjoying the freedom granted us by the Universal Declaration that speaks of worship as having a private as well as a public dimension.”
Mulroney said his colleagues in Ottawa expressed great skepticism about the creation of an Office for Religious Freedom. He said it remains to be seen whether the new Office of Human Rights, Freedom and Inclusion, will be an improvement.
“Any country seeking to stand up for religious freedom and freedom of conscience abroad must be seen to support these things clearly and unequivocally at home,” Mulroney said. “Getting this right matters.”
“Managing our future relationship with a country as complex and challenging as China requires us to lift our game,” he said. “We need to think carefully about how we advance our interests, while reflecting on the negative consequences of China’s re-emergence as a global power.”
The forum also heard from representatives of the Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhist and Uyghur Muslim communities, who Bennett said are viewed as “an existential threat to the Chinese State” and subject to violent suppression, torture, and imprisonment.
Actress, human rights advocate and 2015 Miss World Canada title holder Anastasia Lin, closed out the evening talking about her own encounters with the persecution of the Chinese government that has affected her family in China and blocked her from visiting.
Lin said she first encountered push back when she worked with a producer on a program documenting the massive deaths in an earthquake caused by the collapse of poorly constructed buildings due to government corruption.
Her work as an actress made her want to understand better the “physicality of torture,” such as having bamboo sticks shoved under the fingernails, or having electronic batons applied to various body parts.
The torture, whether physical or mental, against Christians, Falun Gong, Tibetan Buddhists or Uyghurs is designed to get people to renounce their faith, she said. Ninety per cent of them do renounce their faith.
What confounded her was the 10 per cent who didn’t, she said. “They had the inner power to survive and maintain the belief the world is good despite being surrounded by evil, hate and fear,” she said.
Those, like two sisters she got to know who were forced to witness each other’s torture, “come out and pass on light to everyone around them,” she said.
These victims can be “seen on the streets of Chinatown, handing out flyers, but are mostly ignored,” she said. But their stories prompted her to seek the title of Miss World Canada to use it as a platform to tell their stories.
Because of her human rights advocacy, her father lost his business in China, she said. The government censors art, silences the media “to make it more easy to enslave people.”
“But they can never crush the human spirit,” Lin said. “I know this from experience.”
“The world today is crying out for hope,” she said, urging writers, artists, politicians and the media to fight for human rights. “Evil injustice and cruelty do not have the final word.”