The Yukon has a new sister province in China: Shaanxi. The deal was signed last week by Premier Darrell Pasloski and Shaanxi Governor Zhao Zhengyong, who welcomed the Yukon delegation on behalf of both the Shaanxi Communist Party and the People’s Government of Shaanxi.
The Yukon government’s website has a photo of Pasloski and Zhao chatting politely in a hotel lobby, while the People’s Government went with a full-blown handshake-and-smile-with-Chinese-flag photo op.
I’ve been to Shaanxi, and it is an impressive place. Its history goes back thousands of years, and it was the capital of more than a few Chinese dynasties. The famous terracotta warriors are from Shaanxi. Today, the province has more people than Canada and the main city, Xi’an, has almost four million inhabitants.
Its economy has been growing at around 20 per cent a year, according to official figures. Shaanxi Nonferrous Metals Group owns the Yukon’s Wolverine mine.
But the Yukon government’s total focus on business deals – its press release doesn’t mention human rights at all – is unusual. Prime Minister Stephen Harper once said of China that “I think Canadians want us to promote our trade relations worldwide, and we do that, but I don’t think Canadians want us to sell out important Canadian values.” Harper even met the Dalai Lama, much to the vexation of the Chinese government.
One can see why Governor Zhao was smiling at the all-business Yukon delegation.
Crafting a sensible China policy is tricky. On the one hand, China is a huge market opportunity. And, perhaps even more importantly these days, its state-controlled companies have billions and billions of dollars to invest in mines, gas fields and infrastructure that Western companies are having trouble raising money for.
On the other hand, of course, China remains an authoritarian state with a regime kept in power by fearsome security services and a politically aligned military. Supporters of democratic rights, trade unions and religious freedom have plenty to be worried about.
Geopolitics complicate things even further. Canadian trading partners, including Japan, the Philippines and South Korea are clearly worried about China’s growing military capabilities. And China’s support of the murderous Assad regime in Syria, and its continued purchase of Iranian oil despite international boycotts sparked by Iran’s nuclear program, has underlined real and recent policy differences with Canada on the global stage.
Economic nationalists are also worried about selling off assets to state-owned Chinese companies. This was highly controversial in the U.S. when Chinese energy giant CNOOC tried to buy Unocal, a big oil company.
CNOOC eventually backed off, probably feeling it was wise not to push American public opinion too far. CNOOC has now returned with the smaller and less sensitive acquisition of Nexen in Canada. “Business is business. It should not be politicized,” said Chinese Ambassador Zhang Junsai.
This is the Chinese government’s point of view. It prefers to keep business and its domestic activities strictly compartmentalized.
But the human rights concerns in Shaanxi are not trivial. I can’t read any of the Chinese dissident blogs on these topics, so here are some samples from Western sources.
Amnesty International’s recent China briefing, just before the Yukon delegation’s trip to Xi’an, reported that a disabled military veteran named Xu Lingjun died in a Shaanxi prison after being starved to death over nine months. He received 100 grams of food per day, but had his ration cut for two days if he spoke to other prisoners.
USA Today reported from Xi’an about a mother named Meng Zhaoping, whose son was executed by the authorities after a brawl. She believes his organs were harvested and sold by the prison, a practice which has been documented by groups such as Human Rights Watch.
The US Congressional commission on China, created to monitor human rights in that country, reported that Shaanxi labour laws do not allow miners the right to refuse work in unsafe conditions. Before a 2005 mine disaster in Shaanxi, worried miners were ordered back underground and threatened with fines if they did not comply.
The New York Times reported this summer, also shortly before the Yukon’s sister-province agreement was signed, about an incident where Shaanxi government officials forced a woman named Feng Jianmei to undergo an abortion because having a second child would violate China’s one-child policy. She was seven-months pregnant.
The Times went on to report that “graphic photos were posted on the Internet showing a 23-year-old woman named Feng Jianmei lying in a hospital bed with the remains of the fetus, soaked in blood.”
This is a sample of news coverage from the Yukon’s new sister province. One presumes that Governor Zhao was familiar with these issues since, prior to being governor and signing the sister province deal with the Yukon, he served as political commissar for a state security organization.
It must be noted, for the record, that the Chinese government denies these reports and they cannot be confirmed independently.
The right approach to the China question is not a knee-jerk reaction against trade and co-operation. Building relationships as China opens up to the world is important. But the Yukon government has gone too far the other way. I don’t think we are doing our friends in China, or our self-respect, any favours by ignoring the troubling record of the Shaanxi and Chinese governments and their senior officials.
A trade deal would have been fine, but the sister-province ceremony smacks of an endorsement of how the Communist regime runs Shaanxi. This is surely how the Shaanxi government views it, and explains why they highlighted it in their public communications. One wonders what Ms. Meng, Ms. Feng, the family of Mr. Xu or Shaanxi miners would say if we could ask them.
So far, there hasn’t been much reaction here. Neither opposition party website sports a strongly worded press release and unions, church groups and human rights campaigners here haven’t picked up the issue.
But I predict they will. And, at that point, the communications people in the Premier’s Office may be thinking twice about how wise it was to splash photos around of their man grinning and gripping with Beijing’s man in Shaanxi.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.