Opinion Column

Business before human rights


"I believe that no matter what happens, nothing can prevent the historical process by which society demands freedom and democracy."

- Ai Weiwei, imprisoned Chinese artist and architect

China's best-known artist and architect, Ai Weiwei, has been in jail since April 3 for speaking out against his country's dictatorship.

The first Chinese national to win the Nobel Peace Prize, Liu Xiaobo, is also in jail, serving an 11-year-sentence for "inciting subversion of state power."

On June 4 in Hong Kong, 150,000 people rallied to demand human rights and mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of protestors by the army.

Meanwhile, Canada plans to double its $30 billion annual trade with this authoritarian government by 2015.

That means these two extraordinarily brave men are good for democracy but bad for business.

In May 2009 Ai predicted his eventual jailing.

He knew that criticizing the 2008 Beijing Olympics - despite being a consulting architect to the fabulous Bird's Nest stadium - and posting online lists of the names of children killed in the 2008 Szechuan earthquake when their poorly built schools collapsed - would doom his freedom.

Before his popular Internet blog was erased and his Twitter account with more than 70,000 followers was silenced, Ai wrote: "Reject cynicism, reject cooperation, reject fear . there is nothing to discuss . I won't cooperate. If you must, come bring your instruments of torture with you."

The case of Liu is equally, if not more, disturbing.

Liu joined student demonstrations in Beijing's Tiananmen Square in 1989 and has been a pro-democracy activist ever since. It has cost him his job as a teacher and he has been jailed repeatedly.

His commitment to achieving democracy and protection of human rights through non-violent protest earned him the Nobel Prize last October. China branded Liu a "criminal" and his award "an obscenity."

So at a time when Canada rightly rally support for pro-democracy movements in Egypt and Libya, isn't it also appropriate we demand freedom for Liu and Ai and more support for democracy in China?

Or is it just business as usual?

A disturbing footnote: The last time I wrote about democracy in China in 2008 I received e-mail death threats. Vancouver police found they originated in China, which refuses to cooperate with investigations by foreign police.

Read more from Bill Tieleman at thetyee.ca Email: weststar@telus.net Website: billtieleman.blogspot.com