Ramos and Griffith: Human rights defenders should boycott immigration conference in Beijing

Our op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen (part of the national Postmedia chain for those outside of Canada):

The number of international events being hosted by China is on the rise. At first glance, one might argue that global exchange is a mechanism for the West to normalize democratic values and open science. However, the world is increasingly witnessing repressive regimes, such as that in China, rise in influence at the cost of human rights and democracy. This then raises the question: Does participating in events hosted by such regimes promote engagement or complicity?

The Chinese regime has created a number of quasi-independent groups, such as the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), which bills itself as “China’s leading global non-governmental think tank with more than 10 branches and overseas representatives.” The CCG is in fact part of the United Front Work Department, a branch of the Chinese Communist Party that aims to exert Chinese government influence around the world. Both organizations are key pillars in attracting conferences to China, which means that their events will most likely legitimize the regime on the international stage, rather than curb it through engagement.

One example of how this plays out can be seen through the International Metropolis Conference, which involves government policy makers, academics and non-governmental sector organizations and is set to be held in Beijing this coming June. The CCG was a key stakeholder in wooing the conference’s secretariat and bringing it to China. The conference focuses on immigration and refugee issues and is widely known for promoting multiculturalism, diversity and inclusion. It was founded in 1996 with Canadian government funding and with strong links with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada which hosted last year’s conference. Its secretariat is currently based at Carleton University. The conference and the “Metropolis” brand are almost synonymous with Canadian immigration.

Does participating in events hosted by such regimes promote engagement or complicity?Holding such a conference in China under the current regime can only legitimize Beijing’s human rights abuses. Both the United Nations and Amnesty International have issued reports warning that China is actively suppressing its ethnic minority populations. Up to one million  Muslim Uighur are being held in “re-education centres,” which are essentially prison camps. It is ironic to hold a conference on refugees in a country that produced them, and doing so is an act of complicity.

Based on past practices of the regime, it is almost certain that Chinese authorities will not permit a free and open exchange of ideas on relevant Chinese policy and practice. Foreign speakers will likely be discouraged from talking about issues that might “offend” the government, or will censor themselves. Chinese participants will be prohibited from doing so. It is also very likely that minders will be present to monitor and intervene in the event of any real or perceived criticism.

Some might argue that participating in the conference is a means to change the regime and that all countries have blemishes. Canada, for instance, still wrestles with ongoing colonialism. But, there is a major difference between countries that have entrenched human rights in their legislation and those, such as China, who do not. It is naïve to think that hosting an event in China will change its practices.

For this reason, more than 150 academics and representatives of non-governmental groups from across Canada and 11 countries signed a petition against both holding and attending the International Metropolis Conference in Beijing. They recognize that it is not too late to do something about the message Canada and other democratic countries send when they fund and participate in events in China, and that it is not too late for individual Canadians to make a difference.

It is time for Canada and other Western countries to recognize they cannot assume that policy and academic exchange will change repressive regimes. Rather it could potentially legitimate them or send the signal that the international community is willing to turn a blind eye. For these reasons it is time to rethink when it is appropriate to participate in events held by repressive regimes. Failing to do so risks compromising Canadian and international human rights values.

Source: https://ottawacitizen.com/opinion/columnists/ramos-and-griffith-human-rights-defenders-should-boycott-immigration-conference-in-beijing

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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