07/15/2016 11:00 EDT | Updated 07/15/2016 11:59 EDT

When It Comes To China, We All Suffer From Myopia

Justin Tang/CP

Despite my experience as a community activist and a former school trustee candidate, the new level of drama in Chinese Canadian politics comes as a surprise to me. For the most part, we are a community of hard working, placid individuals who typically shy away from politics.

However, this all changed when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi berated iPolitics' reporter Amanda Connolly. Just to make it clear, Amanda Connolly asked our own Foreign Minister Stephane Dion questions about China's terrible human rights record, its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and its recent strange arrest of Hong Kong book store owners. Then Wang Yi interrupted and accused Connolly of not knowing anything about China, its policies, and being full of arrogance and prejudice.

The Chinese community is divided over this incident. A vigorous debate soon started on WeChat, a popular social media tool similar to Facebook. Ontario Minister of International Trade Michael Chan led the efforts to defend China's human rights record and Wang Yi. Michael Chan and like-minded individuals all felt that Wang Yi was right to "corner" Amanda Connolly for asking "inappropriately provocative" questions. They felt not only was Wang Yi right in giving Connolly a piece of his mind, but Wang Yi also did the "honour" of restoring Chinese National Pride by "cutting off" Stephane Dion and reiterating the Chinese Government's talking points.

The rest of the Chinese community felt Wang Yi was rude, brash and lacking in the finesse that should be shown by a seasoned diplomat. Furthermore, they find that his propensity for lashing out at journalists who are just doing their jobs is rather distasteful. Most importantly, they believe that China should be pressed on human rights at every opportunity.

Journalists want to tell stories from a pre-defined narrative that suits the neo-liberal mindset of the West. That position has not evolved very much over the past 20 years.

It turns out that human rights is an extremely complicated issue in China. Neither Michael Chan nor Amanda Connolly got it right. None of them fully understands the multi-faceted, non-singular nuances of including human rights in our foreign policy with China through trade negotiations. When it comes to China, unfortunately, all of us suffer from myopia. From time to time, our journalists want to tell stories from a pre-defined narrative that suits the neo-liberal mindset of the West. That position has not evolved very much over the past 20 years.

Wang Yi is probably correct that Amanda Connolly knows very little about China and does not understand its issues in depth. This certainly does not disqualify her from asking valid and probing questions at a press conference.

China has made improvements in human rights, but contrary to what Wang Yi suggested, it is not necessarily through the merits of the Chinese government, but rather through the advocacy of civic engagement of its people.

The Chinese government officially ended its isolationist approach after the Cultural Revolution. It opened the door to the West. Millions of Chinese have travelled and studied abroad as a result of the "Opening Up" policy Deng Xiao Ping so fiercely and aggressively implemented. The "unintended" effect of that is people have witnessed the model of democratic governance and civic disobedience. Since then, they have brought it with them upon their return to China.

Despite the global interest in the rise of China and its terrible human rights record, no one is paying much attention to China's de facto opposition: the Public Intelligentsia. China has a surprisingly lively intellectual class whose ideas may prove a serious challenge to the ruling Communist party. The Public Intelligentsia is made up of people from all walks of life: professors, teachers, economists, lawyers, TV personalities and so on.

Paradoxically, the power of the Chinese Public Intelligentsia is amplified by China's repressive political system, where there are no opposition parties, no independent trade unions, no public disagreements between politicians, and a media that exists to underpin social control rather than promote political accountability. Intellectual debate in that world can become a surrogate for politics. On a daily basis, the Chinese Intellectual goes on to Weibo (Chinese version of Twitter) to openly discuss the concepts of civic discourse, accountability, democracy and free elections.

Just three weeks ago, about 80 people attended a town hall meeting in Shanghai Library. Among them were college professors, lawyers, working moms, teachers and white collar professionals. They were there to discuss the need for constitutional reform and democratic transformation. Following the passing of Lei Yang, an environmentalist who died after an altercation with the Beijing police, the public demanded a reinvestigation of this case because it appeared that Lei Yang was framed by the police.

Talk show hosts, writers, fashion bloggers and gay rights activists formed an unusual alliance. They mobilized and organized the movement "We Must Speak Out," where thousands of people signed the petition to demand an independent third party inquiry. They also successfully swayed public opinion in favour of opposition to police brutality and its abuse of power.

We have to highlight the numerous examples of success stories of their hard-fought battles.

Southern Weekly, which is dubbed as China's most influential liberal newspaper by the New York Times, often runs into trouble when its editorial board openly rejects the Communist party's propaganda. LIBRAIRIE AVANT-GARDE, voted by CNN as one of the most beautiful bookstores in China, frequently holds free lectures for citizens on civil rights, workers' rights, climate change and pay equity. Two weeks ago, in the city of Nanjing, thousands of parents demonstrated outside of the provincial Ministry of Education peacefully, demanding the ministry reverse its decision to remove 40,000 university admission spaces without consulting the parents, first. Yet we rarely hear these stories being covered in our mainstream media.

The point of pressing China for human rights reform at every opportunity is not just to embarrass China. Rather, the goal is to remind China, over and over, that human rights is a universal value which China must recognize if it wants to be a player on the world stage. Instead of covering the same old mundane stories 1,000 times, we must also start covering the real improvements in China, not to please or kowtow to the Chinese government, but rather to empower the people of China and let them know that through strong advocacy and engagement, change can and will happen.

We have to recognize that, as a rising super power, China does not always have to do what Canada wants it to do. Our press has to stop getting into the habit of being self-indulgent or exhibiting a moral superiority complex.

We must stand with the people of China. We have a moral obligation to help them transition from "people" to "citizens," as Southern Weekly, China's most influential liberal newspaper put it. "We are not Spartan slaves, we are the citizens of Athens."

We have to highlight the numerous examples of success stories of their hard-fought battles. We need to correct our own myopia when it comes to China. It is time to take off our rose-coloured glasses and to view the problem through the prism of reality.

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