Blame Canada

Why did Canada and the EU abandon Chen Guangcheng? (Hint: Pandas ain't free.)

In December 2010, a trio of Western diplomats stationed in China -- one each from Canada, Switzerland, and the European Union -- drove from Beijing to the village of Dongshigu, eight hours away in Shandong province, hoping to visit the detained dissident Chen Guangcheng.

No one has spoken publicly about what happened next. They did not mention the excursion itself, and certainly not the rough reception they received from the hands of the guards who prevented them from seeing Chen. But one person with knowledge of the incident used the words "roughed up;" another said the diplomats had been "threatened" by "thugs." All three embassies declined to comment about what had happened in Dongshigu.

Intimidating diplomats violates the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which asserts diplomats have freedom of movement within a host country, unless there's a national security reason to deny it. It's also a breach of the informal rule against threatening a foreign country's emissaries. But the governments decided it was better to complain in private to Beijing; at least two of the governments coordinated their response to Beijing about the incident. The Chinese Communist Party, after all, bristles when foreign countries embarrass it in public by raising issues it declares "sensitive," such as its treatment of political dissidents or ethnic minorities.  

U.S. President Barack Obama also went strangely silent when first asked to publicly comment on the Chen case in early May of this year, taking pains not to use the name of the blind lawyer who his government was already shielding. But at least the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, acting with the Obama administration's backing, had already decided to do something -- incurring Chinese ire by sending a car to collect Chen from those who had helped him escape Dongshigu, whisking him inside the embassy's fortress-like walls.

The Obama administration later took heavy criticism when Chen left the embassy, under an arrangement he soon regretted. After two weeks of waiting, Chen said Wednesday that he and his family have finally filled out their application forms to receive Chinese passports and that he expects to have permission to travel by the end of the month. If the Chinese don't honor the deal that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton arranged while in Beijing -- which would see Chen leave China to attend university in the United States -- the attacks will intensify.  

These are arguably valid criticisms, particularly if Chen and his family somehow end up in in a more dangerous place than when he first sought American protection. And, arguably, other Chinese human rights activists have found themselves in trouble particularly because of American attention. But at least Washington remains willing to challenge the Chinese leadership about specific human rights cases. Few other countries do anymore. While Switzerland and the EU have both dialed down their public human rights pressure on China over the past few years, it is Canada which has taken the greatest step backwards in Beijing.

Canada used to be one of the most outspoken critics of China's human rights abuses. When Prime Minister Stephen Harper entered office in 2006, he famously said that Canadians didn't want him to "sell out important Canadian values -- our belief in democracy, freedom, human rights" in dealings with China, as this was far more important than "the almighty dollar." Harper skipped the 2008 Beijing Olympics, which some interpreted as a criticism of China's human rights records. Two years earlier, he infuriated Beijing by bestowing honorary Canadian citizenship on the Dalai Lama. 

But three years ago, the public support stopped. "The enduring effort to change China must be replaced by working with China and living with China," Paul Evans, the director of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, a think-tank funded by the Canadian government to produce policy advice, said in the fall of 2010 on the 40th anniversary of Canada-China relations. Speaking privately to China's rulers about human rights concerns -- rather than airing out grievances in public -- allows a smaller country like Canada to wield more influence in Beijing, and increase its chances that someone might actually listen. Or at least that's how the new theory went. And with prickly political issues pushed to the sidelines, everybody could focus in the meantime on expanding the trade relationship. But critics say Canada has done precisely what Harper once swore not to: sold "Canadian values" for better trade ties. If Harper mentions the cases of human rights activists only privately, the Chinese don't see Canada as a supporter for their case. And that distinction matters.  

Since Harper switched strategies, trade between Canada and China has grown to $65 billion in 2011, up 29 percent from 2009. During Harper's visit to China in February, his second in three years, he signed trade deals worth up to $3 billion more -- and, in a centuries-old gesture of China's goodwill, Canada was finally loaned a pair of pandas, after three decades of asking. Harper claimed he raised specific cases during a private meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao earlier in the visit. But at a press conference held outside the panda enclosure in Chongqing on the last day of his trip, Harper awkwardly avoided uttering the name Liu Xiaobo -- even when asked a direct question about the jailed Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

But if speaking softly is the new policy for dealing with China's troubling human rights record, why the run to Dongshigu? The diplomats must have known they would be prevented from entering Chen's house. Plenty of evidence existed online about the kind of reception they were sure to receive. The Dongshigu thugs had beaten Chinese human rights activists who tried to visit the blind lawyer. Practically every major Western newspaper had reported on the security forces guarding Chen, and the treatment they doled out to visitors. Foreign television correspondents had been chased away while their cameras rolled. Different-colored diplomatic passports were not the key to breaking Chen's forced isolation.

Of the dozens of dissidents and journalists who attempted to see Chen, many did so knowing that it was highly unlikely they would be able to break through the security cordon around Dongshigu, and indeed, no credible cases have surfaced of any who had been able to see him. Many made the effort, as actor Christian Bale did later, purely to raise the profile of the case, to tell both the local authorities and central government in Beijing that the world cared about what happened to Chen. They may have failed to win his release, but they put evidence of Chen's detention before the international public and raised his profile among China's hundreds of millions of Internet users, some of whom now see Chen as a full-fledged folk hero.

So what did three diplomats staying silent about their attack at Dongshigu accomplish? If Canada, Switzerland, and the EU simply wanted to add Chen's case to the laundry list of human-rights cases they claim they raise whenever they sit down with China's leaders, they could have done so based on the testimonials of the Chinese activists and foreign journalists who tried and failed to visit him. Maybe the diplomats were trying -- unsuccessfully, it appears -- to draw their bosses' attention to Chen's plight. Foreign embassies exist not only to interact with the host government, but with the people of that country; and their cowardice has now won them few fans among the countless millions of Chinese who see Chen as a beacon of freedom.

When I called Chen Guangcheng the day after he was moved from the U.S. Embassy to the Chaoyang Hospital in east Beijing (where he remains today), I asked him if there was any time during his flight from Dongshigu that he considered taking shelter at the Canadian Embassy, or perhaps another diplomatic mission in Beijing. "No," he responded over the crackling mobile phone line.

"The American Embassy represents the principles of democracy, freedom, and human rights that are the pillars of their country. On these aspects, other countries are maybe not as good."

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The Rise of Europe's Private Internet Police

Activists are fighting to rein them in.

In 2005, Peter Mahnke, a resident of the English town of St. Margaret's, Middlesex, set up a community website. For the past seven years, he and a handful of local volunteers have been publishing regular updates about local events, parks, new businesses, weather, and train schedules. All G-rated and uncontroversial.

Yet in early March, for reasons that remain unclear, the St. Margaret's website was blocked throughout Britain on mobile Internet services offered by Orange (a subsidiary of France Telecom) and T-mobile (owned by Deutsche Telecom). The site had fallen victim to a nationwide child-protection system run by the mobile companies themselves. Somehow the system, which activists say is rife with errors, had classified the site as "adult" content, causing it to be blocked on all phones by default.

The accidental censorship of the St. Margaret's community website highlights a larger reality of the Internet age: The digital networks and platforms we depend upon for all aspects of our lives -- including the civic and political -- are for the most part designed, owned, operated, and governed by the private sector. Internet and mobile services empower us to organize and communicate in exciting new ways, and indeed have been politically transformative in democracies and dictatorships alike. But the connectivity they provide has also created tough new problems for parents, law enforcement, and anybody wanting to protect their intellectual property. Democratically elected governments face political pressure from a range of vocal and powerful constituencies to take urgent action to protect children, property, and reputations. Increasingly, however, the job of policing the Internet is falling to private intermediaries -- companies that are under little or no legal obligation to uphold citizens' rights. In effect, they end up acting simultaneously as digital police, judge, jury, and executioner.

European governments may not have intended to create a "privatized police state," but that is what digital rights activists in Europe warn is happening, due to growing government pressure on companies to police themselves. As Joe McNamee, director of the Brussels-based nonprofit European Digital Rights Initiative (EDRI), puts it, "We are sleepwalking further and further along a road on which we've decided that our right to communication and privacy shall be put in the hands of arbitrary decisions of private companies."

The St. Margaret's website was one example of many included in a new report by the UK-based advocacy organization Open Rights Group and the London School of Economics' Media Policy Project about child protection-related censorship carried out by companies running Britain's major mobile Internet services. Websites censored in the name of protecting British children from "adult" content included "Biased BBC," dedicated to critiquing the national broadcaster, "Shelf Appeal," a website dedicated to products that can be packed on shelves, and "La Quadrature du Net," a French digital rights advocacy group. Carriers lifted the blocks on these websites once activists brought the censorship to their attention, but it remains unclear how these sites made their way onto company blacklists in the first place. Even more troubling, the censorship affected not just users under 18 but also all subscribers. "Phone companies 'censor' the mobile Internet by default because they don't know whether their phones are being given to or used by children and young adults," the report's authors explain. "A system ostensibly designed to help parents manage their children's access to the Internet is effectively implementing much broader restrictions on access to information that affect a much wider group of people than intended."

This type of problem is serious enough, in enough countries, to have made its way to the U.N. Human Rights Council. Last year, the U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, delivered an official report to the council that not only condemned the censorship and surveillance practices of authoritarian countries, but also warned of dangerous trends in the democratic world that threaten citizen rights to free expression in the Internet age. One of his major concerns is "over-broad private censorship, often without transparency and the due process of the law." He singled out two examples of how governments are, ironically, using law to delegate enforcement responsibilities and functions to the private sector: Britain's Digital Economy Act, which could potentially disconnect Internet users suspected of illegal downloading, and France's similar "three strikes" law.

La Rue also expressed concern about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), signed by the United States and several dozen trading partners, which seeks to tackle the global problem of counterfeiting, both online and off. One of the many reasons digital rights and free expression advocates oppose ACTA is because of its broad definitions of criminal liability, which could hold private companies legally responsible for what users do or share through their services. This could in turn push private companies to police the Internet in order to avoid prosecution. The same push for private policing of citizens' digital communications was also a feature of the U.S. House of Representatives' Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which was killed by a similar grassroots political movement in January.

The first months of 2012 have seen political victories for citizens' digital rights in Europe as well. A pan-European grassroots movement has successfully pressured several EU member governments to scrap or delay plans to ratify ACTA, causing European Commissioner Neelie Kroes to declare "We are now likely to be in a world without SOPA and without ACTA." In Germany, the Pirate Party, whose platform includes an anti-censorship, anti-surveillance agenda, has been making steady inroads at the level of state parliaments, and is optimistic about gaining national parliamentary seats. Last week, the Netherlands became the first European country and the second country in the world to pass a net neutrality law, which also protects Internet users from disconnection and wiretapping by Internet service providers. As EDRI's McNamee puts it, a growing number of Europeans are waking up to the notion that "the essence of the Internet is at stake," and with it, citizens' freedoms both online and off. 

The Internet is a politically contested space. If citizens' rights are to be robustly defended within it, EDRI's McNamee argues, "the role of intermediaries" -- companies like Orange and T-Mobile and all other providers of broadband and mobile Internet service -- "in policing and control and regulation of the online world must be understood," not just by technologists and Internet policy specialists, but by politicians, the press, and the public. Citizens' rights cannot be protected if their digital activities are governed and policed by opaque and publicly unaccountable corporate mechanisms. Clear limits should be set on how power is exercised in cyberspace by companies as well as governments through the democratic political process and enforced through law.

La Rue, the U.N. special rapporteur, has proposed three core principles upon which those limits should be based: 1) restrictions of citizens' access to information online should be limited to exceptional circumstances; 2) enforcement mechanisms should be governed by law and a clear legal process; 3) restrictions to the flow of information should take place only under exceptional and limited circumstances prescribed by international human rights law. Many European digital rights groups now use these standards as core elements of their fight. The next step will be for politicians wanting to capitalize on the growing public concern for digital liberties to incorporate La Rue's principles into their political platforms, then push for laws that will strengthen citizens' rights in cyberspace -- rather than erode them.

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