Seeing no evil is an immoral policy
Suppose that somewhere in the world a repressive regime was not merely slaughtering practitioners of a peaceful religion but selling their organs. Should we try to do something? Besides ignoring it because they’re good trading partners, I mean? The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. We may be unable to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries even when they need it very badly. But we cannot avoid the issue; there are credible accusations that China is not only harassing and imprisoning practitioners of Falun Gong, but murdering them and then harvesting their corneas, kidneys and other organs for sale to those needing transplants.
I know it sounds too horrible to be true, and maybe it isn’t true. But the past century taught us that nothing is too horrible to be true. And respected former Canadian MP David Kilgour and B’nai Brith senior counsel David Matas have produced enough evidence (see their report at organharvestinvestigation.net/ report0701/report20070131-eng.pdf) to command our attention.
Or so you’d think. But when I checked out the Falun Gong protest this Monday against the official visit to Canada of Chinese commerce minister Bo Xilai, I found nobody there but Falun Gong practitioners. No press, no activists, no politicians. What’s going on? A few voices have been raised; on Wednesday, Ottawa rabbi Reuven Bulka and others called for a boycott of the Beijing Olympics. This newspaper has had stories, editorial commentary and a column by Donna Jacobs. But with a few other noble exceptions, there has been silence. Where is Amnesty International or the NDP?
It is, of course, possible to deny that China is repressive, let alone guilty of such atrocities. As did a May 28 Citizen letter to the editor of exactly the oleaginous sort habitually penned by diplomats from tyrannical regimes. But the rest of us know about Tiananmen Square, the lao gai (China’s gulag) and much else besides. Pretending we don’t is no solution.
Granting that China is repressive does not automatically mean we should try to do something about it. For starters, if you believe governments derive their legitimate powers from the consent of the governed, then our government only has the right to interfere in the domestic affairs of China, however horrendous, if we citizens of Canada delegate that right to it. Which we can only do if we possess it.
Maybe we do. We clearly do not have the permission of the inhabitants of China to arrange their affairs for them on an ongoing basis. But if we are at bottom our brother’s keepers, then when things are sufficiently horrible we might have the right, even the duty, to try to help. Also, because historically tyrannies have proved more aggressive than democracies, our undoubted right of self-defence may authorize us to act against foreign repression.
In either event, we could then delegate those rights to our government. But granting that we have the right to intervene does not mean it would necessarily be prudent to try. If we lack the power to overthrow tyrants or bring them to heel, empty threats and ineffective blows may simply provoke them into even greater belligerence, repression or both.
As Richard Nixon was rightly wont to stress, trying to frustrate a tyrant’s foreign policy goals rarely directly threatens his regime; targeting his domestic political arrangements necessarily does. And he will respond accordingly.
These are serious issues deserving serious discussion. Far more serious, indeed, than they have received. The sophisticated columnists recently hectoring the Harper government for irritating the Chinese over human rights at the expense of trade did not then praise the government for welcoming Minister Bo. They ignored the visit. As far as I can tell, only CanWest newspapers, including this one, even ran news stories about his being served with legal papers over his alleged role in repression.
I repeat that it is not entirely obvious what should have been said or done. Can one refuse to have commercial dealings with a repressive regime? How repressive must it be? Does prudence require circumspection if the regime is powerful? Should we boycott the 2008 Olympics? Throw out the ambassador? Close down the state-sponsored Confucius Institutes sprouting in Canadian academic organizations? Or merely insist quietly that Beijing not send particularly provocative visitors on official business?
All these are important questions. I have warned and still warn against facile attempts to remake the world. But I am flabbergasted that people would studiously ignore the issue, or say it doesn’t matter if money is soaked in blood provided there’s a big enough pile of it.
[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]