China’s man in Canada: ‘We never say China’s human rights situation is perfect’

| June 23, 2015 | 0 Comments
(Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

(Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Luo Zhaohui began his mission as ambassador to Canada in May 2014. The ambassador, who has a master’s degree in history, joined the foreign service in 1985 and has had postings in India and Washington, and served as ambassador to Pakistan before coming to Canada. He sat down with Diplomat’s editor, Jennifer Campbell, to discuss everything from China’s ambitions and aspirations to the building in which the embassy is housed. This marked the first time a Chinese ambassador has agreed to an interview with Diplomat in 11 years.

DM: How would you characterize China’s relationship with Canada since your arrival? It’s been a little bit rocky in recent years.
LZ: I think I am quite lucky. I have been here a little more than one year and bilateral relations are on a good momentum. For me, I’m here just to try to do more to enhance them. I arrived last May and after that, my counterparts worked to prepare your prime minister’s trip to China in November. That trip reached a lot of consensus with China’s leader. The two sides issued a joint list of 20 agreements. No. 1, both sides agreed to establish a mechanism for annual ministers’ dialogues and also for an annual economic and financial strategic dialogue. No. 2, both sides agreed to establish some direct air links from Calgary to Beijing and Montreal to Beijing. No. 3, both sides agreed to establish mechanisms for the further study of a free-trade agreement between our two sides and also the first study of China-Canada maritime energy corridors. No. 4, China agreed to open market access to the Canadian side regarding agri-food and seafood materials, including beef, strawberries, etc. Both sides also agreed this would be a year of people-to-people interactions. We reached a lot of consensus and made a lot of promises. It gave us [at the embassy] a tough job.
I have four priorities: I have to implement the joint list of outcomes, one by one. Otherwise, it’s only on paper. We should also try our best to enhance concrete co-operation on big projects. With LNG, you have a lot of natural resources and the Asia-Pacific market is a huge market and we should promote LNG. Also, high-speed railways. We’re talking about that. China has advanced technology in this area. We wish to co-operate with a company, for example, Bombardier. No. 3, the highest priority, is to expand two-way trade. So far, China is the second-largest trading partner to Canada. The first is the United States. Trade with the U.S. is more than $700 billion. In China, we’re No. 2, but last year, it was only $55 billion. I’m quite optimistic. This big difference means big opportunities and we should narrow the gap.
We want to import more from Canada, but the problem is that we don’t have a free-trade agreement, so materials from your side are relatively higher priced, compared to Australia, for example.
[On a future free-trade agreement], we did discuss establishing a mechanism for further study, but there’s no agreement to start immediately. It’s baby steps. It’s too slow. It just gave permission to an academic institution for further study. Every country is talking about free-trade agreements — even your country is talking about TPP, and you just completed an agreement with South Korea. China, as No. 2, we really wish to start as soon as possible.

On Taiwan: “This is quite a sensitive issue for us.” (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

On Taiwan: “This is quite a sensitive issue for us.” (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

DM: From your point of view, what are the obstacles to a free-trade agreement?
LZ: From your side, you think that a trade deficit is a problem, but in my opinion, it’s a statistical issue. From my side, we are almost balanced. You say it’s $3 billion, but my side says it’s $2 billion. It’s a different way of counting. I proposed to your government that we establish a joint working group to see where the problem is. There’s no response yet from your side. I think this is an excuse from your side. You have your own strategy for FTAs. We understand that, but we always say ‘it takes two to tango.’ This is our priority and our direction and your side has different priorities.

DM: How do human rights play into negotiations that are largely economic?

LZ: We never say that China’s human rights situation is perfect. The right to life and right to development is the highest priority for us. According to the World Bank and UN standards, we have 200 million people living below the poverty line. They live on less than US $1.25 per day. So we have a tough task to achieve full economic development and to make people’s [lives] even better. For human rights issues, we know this is an issue and we will use consultation and communication to resolve these differences.

On corruption: “If you don’t abide by the rules and do something corrupt, you will be punished.” (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

On corruption: “If you don’t abide by the rules and do something corrupt, you will be punished.” (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

DM: Is China publicly cracking down on corruption, for which it is roundly criticized?
LZ: In the past few years, this has really become a serious problem. Two years ago, when the new administration took office, we launched a campaign for anti-corruption. Everyone supports that. This also includes a request for co-operation from the international community.

DM: What is included in the campaign? What sorts of measures are they taking?
LZ: We have taken concrete measures. We’ve taken action to mobilize the people and we’ve sent a lot of teams from the central government to investigate cases. If you don’t abide by the rules and do something corrupt, you will get punished. Zhou Yongkang was charged. [In April 2015, Zhou was charged with bribery, abuse of power and the intentional disclosure of state secrets. He was the first Politburo standing committee member and the most senior official to be investigated for corruption since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.]
The situation in China, you know, we have good momentum. With anti-corruption and economic reform, ordinary people are so happy and optimistic for the future. Everyone has the Chinese dream to make more money and a better life. China’s per-capita GDP is only around US $7,000. Canada’s is more than $50,000, so it’s much higher than ours. Even with our per-capita, there’s a big gap between the Western and Eastern provinces. We have a long way go to. We have a population of 1.3 billion.

“Tibet is a part of China and any action to separate Tibet from China is not acceptable.” (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

“Tibet is a part of China and any action to separate Tibet from China is not acceptable.” (Photo: Dyanne Wilson)

Also, Canada only has one land neighbour. You’re so lucky. In China, we have 14 countries with land borders and eight maritime. On sea, we have two countries with which we have border issues that aren’t resolved.
So things are quite different with your country. You are so lucky and enjoy a life that is quite comfortable.

DM: What is China’s current thinking on Tibet, Hong Kong and Macao?
LZ: This is quite a sensitive issue for us. Compared to all the other major power countries, China is the only country that is not unified because Taiwan is still separate. Unification of China is our task, our job. It’s not ambition, it’s a policy. The problem right now is what way we can use [to achieve that.] Economic integration is so close and we’re happy to see that and maybe we wait for the future. With Taiwan, it’s an issue of sovereignty.
Hong Kong is different. It was a colonial area of the U.K. In 1997, it returned back to Mainland. The Hong Kong special administrative region was established. Recently, Hong Kong political reform has become a hot issue. We think political reform must be in line with basic law, and universal suffrage is also our target.
Yesterday [at time of interview, in late April], I went to your foreign ministry and your parliament regarding these issues. I said we should respect the law, and the basic law is constitutional for Hong Kong.
Your country recognizes dual citizenship. In China, we don’t recognize dual citizenship. You told us you have about a half million Canadian people living in Hong Kong, some of whom have dual citizenship. We understand the situation there, but [we need to look at] how to maintain the peace and prosperity.
Tibet is also different. The Dalai Lama is a religious leader, but at the same time, he’s also a political monk and he established a state inside of the union. In 1959, he did some bad things and [chose to exile himself] to India and now, he uses every occasion to try to establish a Tibetan state.
The people of Tibet enjoy their life and their religious freedom and it’s not any problem for them, but for religious reasons, they have a lot of contact with the Dalai Lama. Tibet is a part of China and any action to separate Tibet from China is not acceptable. If he gives up his desire to separate, there’s no problem for him to come back. But this guy — the Dalai Lama — sometimes uses beautiful language to cheat the international community. This is quite sensitive for us and we have a consistent policy and China’s sovereignty is very important for us.

DM: When will the people of Hong Kong be able to select their own candidates for the chief executive — originally scheduled for 2017, and possibly elect the legislative council, rather than have China select them?
LZ: On 1 July 1997, the Chinese government resumed the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong. Hong Kong has since been a Special Administrative Region of China. As stipulated in the basic law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), the aim is to elect the chief executive by universal suffrage, in light of the actual situation of Hong Kong and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. In this connection, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress of China has adopted a number of decisions, making it clear that the selection of chief executive of the HKSAR may be implemented by universal suffrage by 2017.
On April 22, 2015, the HKSAR government presented to the HKSAR legislative council the proposals for selection of the chief executive. It is proposed that starting in 2017, the chief executive shall be selected upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures and appointed by the central people’s government.
The central government of China supports the proposals. The [proposed] nomination system is, in fact, a practice in many countries and regions in the world.
If, and when, the universal suffrage proposals are adopted, the five million eligible voters in Hong Kong would be able to elect their chief executive through a “one person, one vote” election for the first time in history.
The motion also proposes that any person who meets the requirements of the basic law, i.e., a Chinese citizen of not less than 40 years of age who is a permanent resident of the region with no right of abode in any foreign country and has ordinarily resided in Hong Kong for a continuous period of not less than 20 years, and meets the relevant statutory requirements, could seek nomination by the nominating committee.

DM: And just following up on your comments about the Dalai Lama, can you specify what “bad things” he did?
LZ: Tibet has been a part of China since ancient times. Tibet has never been an independent country or state.
The Dalai Lama is not a religious figure in an ordinary sense. He is a political exile who has long been engaged, under the disguise of religion, in activities to split China and undermine China’s ethnic unity and solidarity.
The Dalai Lama never recognizes that Tibet has historically been part of China, alleging that Tibet is “a country occupied by China.” He seeks to establish what he calls a “Greater Tibet,” covering an area of nearly one quarter of Chinese territory, something that has never been in existence in history in the first place. He claims that all non-Tibetans should be removed from the “Greater Tibet” and Tibet should be an independent state.
The Dalai Lama deserted and fled China following his boycott of the reform to abolish the serfdom system in Tibet. He established a “government in exile,” which is an illegal political organization for splitting China. No country in the world recognizes his “government in exile.”
What the Dalai Lama has said and done in the past decades proves that he has never given up his separatist position and attempts.

DM: How does China defend its practices of internet spying and hacking?
LZ: Mid-last year, your government criticized the Chinese government for spying and an internet attack. That’s not true, and on that occasion, I made a statement. China is also a victim of cyber attacks and we think international co-operation for anti-cyber attacks is very important. We proposed a lot of policy resolutions at the UN and urged international co-operation. It’s a transnational issue and needs transnational co-operation. With [revelations from Edward] Snowden last year, no country blamed itself or another country, they were always criticizing China. We think that’s unfair.

DM: You’re saying that China doesn’t engage in internet spying and hacking and that it’s unfairly accused?
LZ: Yes, of course — 100 percent sure.

DM: Does the government feel any responsibility to crack down on manufacturers producing knock-offs with trademarked names?
LZ: This is an economic issue and we
recognize that we have some kind of
issues. It’s not the government’s policy and Chinese authorities always take a lot of measures to [battle] that phenomenon. Every year, we have a campaign and there are a lot of activities related to fraud and fakes.
Every country has this problem. We’re working on it. We signed some agreements with your government on intellectual property protection.

DM: China is a rising economic power. What kind of political responsibility does that status bring with it?
LZ: We are No. 2 in the world already in terms of GDP, but, as we said, the per-capita GDP is still quite low. China doesn’t have a history of invading neighbouring countries. That’s different from Western countries’ history. We are an agricultural society and people want stability.
In China right now, we want to help neighbouring countries. We propose to have a Silk Road Economic Belt on land, with neighbouring countries, and also to send [goods] to east Asia, to European countries, with south Asia and southeast Asia. And we’d also have a Maritime Silk Road. This is a reviving of the old Silk Roads from 2,000 years ago. Many neighbouring countries don’t have budgets for infrastructure and high-speed road construction, so we’ll establish a bank to help them. It’s a common development.
Also, China’s military budget is quite low. It accounts for 1.4 percent of total GDP. Usually, military spending accounts for three percent of GDP. We never have any ambitions to acquire, conquer or invade neighbouring countries. Economically, we think it’s a win-win situation. If you help other countries, other countries will also help you. Ten years before China’s two-way trade with ASEAN countries, trade was less than US $100 billion, but now it’s almost $300 billion.

DM: When you leave as ambassador, will Canada and China have a free-trade agreement?
LZ: An ambassador’s term is three or four years, no more. So how to use that limited time? I always tell my colleagues, anything that benefits both sides, we should try our best. Anything that benefits one side, but doesn’t hurt the other side, we should try our best.

DM: Can you talk about state-controlled media in China?
LZ: That’s no problem. We have an official government website and we have our own at foreign affairs. Any messages or news on websites is open. Censorship in China — the daily newspapers do have some regulations — but websites in recent years, even some that carry pornography, are popular. In China, some foreign websites have regulations. They are not open in China.

DM: Are there people in China who aspire to have a free and open press?
LZ: No. We don’t have private newspapers. They belong to the state, to government. They have their own regulations and policies, which is quite natural. But even that, it’s quite open and constructive. I think there’s no problem for freedom of newspapers, but comparing them to websites, websites are more open.

DM: Does not having a free press limit society in any way?
LZ: No. I don’t see any limitations. We have some natural policies. [His aide interjects and says Canada also has regulations, prescribed by the CRTC; Diplomat notes that the CRTC doesn’t limit content.]

LZ: You should visit China. In China, you won’t have any problem with websites and WiFi. We have free WiFi in the hotels, even in Tibet. Last year, I was in a small region of Tibet and I thought there was no WiFi, but when I checked in, the WiFi was so good. [The ambassador changes the subject by turning to the embassy building, where the interview took place.]

LZ: I’m a student of history and I’m really proud of this building. Before I came here, many friends said the embassy was a monastery. I really wanted to know the history. It was built in 1866; we purchased it in 1972. In 1938, there was a big fire and after that, they changed a lot, but the structure, the architecture is still quite similar. It belonged to the Sisters of the Good Shepherd.

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