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Lee HardingChina’s dictatorship, once the apparent favourite of Canada’s prime minister, has become his biggest problem.

When Justin Trudeau first visited China as prime minister, the Chinese lauded him as the “Little Potato” (with his late father Pierre being the big one). The name may be apt. A young potato has no eyes.

Now that a death sentence hangs over a Canadian in China, Trudeau has begun to see the shortcomings of an authoritarian regime. But will he and other Canadians recognize how this country is slipping into the same disturbing approach?

Canadian Robert Schellenberg was arrested in 2014 in China and subsequently convicted of trying to take almost 500 pounds of methamphetamine out of China, heading to Australia. That got him a 15-year sentence. However, the courts more recently found him guilty of a criminal conspiracy to move large amounts of drugs and sentenced him to death.

This alarmed Trudeau, who said, “It is of extreme concern to us as a government … that China has chosen to begin to arbitrarily apply [the] death penalty … as in this case facing a Canadian.”

But that’s what authoritarian governments do. They act arbitrarily. And it was this very criteria that enamoured Trudeau less than six years ago.

Freshly crowned as Liberal leader, two years prior to becoming prime minister, Trudeau was asked: “Which nation’s administration do you most admire and why?”

Taking a minute to think, he replied, “You know, there’s a level of admiration I actually have for China because their basic dictatorship is allowing them to actually turn their economy around on a dime and say ‘We need to go green fastest … we need to start investing in solar.’”

Commentators almost fell out of their chairs. “Where human rights are routinely violated, where political corruption is endemic, and where political rights are nearly non-existent? That China?” asked David Akin of the Toronto Sun. His column referenced annual executions in China that exceed 3,000 people, especially against minorities such as the Muslim Uighurs.

No human or political rights. Death by decree. But hey, solar panels. Thumbs up!

China remains China. It still executes criminals. It still oppresses Uighurs. Last August, Al Jazeera reported, “Following attacks by separatists, members of the Uighur and Kazakh Muslim minorities in Xinjiang have been arbitrarily detained in indoctrination camps where they are forced to denounce Islam and profess loyalty to the party.”

In 2018, a United Nations report claimed that China detained one million Uighur Muslims in “counter-extremism centres.” Similarly, a report from U.S.-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) stated, “Throughout the [Xinjiang] region, the Turkish Muslim [Uighur] population of 13 million is subjected to forced political indoctrination, collective punishment, restrictions on movement and communications, heightened religious restrictions, and mass surveillance in violation of international human rights law.”

Thankfully, Canada has no explicit re-education camps. But Trudeau’s leadership has introduced softer forms of the forced belief, religious oppression, political indoctrination, restricted communications and mass surveillance that China has targeted Muslims with.

Consider:

  • In 2014, Trudeau forced Liberals running for office to be pro-choice.
  • In 2016, Bill C-16 added gender identity and expression to the Criminal Code. Academics such as Jordan Peterson and Bruce Pardy say the forced usage of gender-neutral pronouns (or even those opposite of biological sex) represented “compelled speech” and is a violation of freedom and conscience.
  • Conservative MP Harold Albrecht told the House of Commons, “I fear they [many Canadians] will not be able to even discuss public policy issues such as this one, on which they may disagree with the government agenda.”
  • Religious institutions were further alarmed when the government sought to legalize the disruption of religious services. After a concerted outcry, the government settled for legalizing blasphemy.
  • Meanwhile, Bill C-75 reduced potential penalties for such disruptions, and other crimes including terrorism. These and other sweeping changes were dubbed “a massive step backwards” by the Toronto Star, and seem certain to bog and undermine justice.

Curtailed communications and mass surveillance have also come to Canada. As University of Toronto academics complained, “From mass dissemination of false information, to impersonation, leaking foreign documents in order to influence political and legal outcomes, disabling account or network access, large-scale denial of service attacks, and interference with the electricity grid, the possibilities for the types of activities contemplated in [Bill C-59] are limited only by the imagination.”

To some extent, every government acts arbitrarily. Both dictatorships and democracies exercise power to implement their chosen policies.

But a democracy should respect the rule of law and the rights, values and tax dollars of its citizens. The failure of the Canadian government to do this at home is even more disturbing than a Canadian dying abroad for his crimes.

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.


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