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Transcript of Sen. Yuen Pau Woo's speech on motion concerning genocide of Uyghurs

B.C. senator Yuen Pau Woo delivered the following speech in the Senate on June 28 in advance of a June 29 vote regarding the genocide of the Uyghurs and whether the Senate should call upon the International Olympic Committee to move the 2022 Games out of China:

"Honourable colleagues, I am glad for the opportunity to speak to this motion, which is controversial for many reasons and has generated strong emotions.  Unlike in the House of Commons, we are having a real debate about it, which I believe does honour to the chamber of sober second thought.  There are of course different points of view, including some that are uncomfortable to many, but let’s embrace diversity of opinion rather than seek to shout it down.

"The motion has two parts: the first to do with the plight of Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the second which effectively calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in China. 

"I am going to focus on the former, since the Olympics issue is a relatively straightforward question about how far we should allow politics to influence sporting events. My view, in short, is 'not very far at all'.

"On the thornier issue of Xinjiang, let me begin by saying that how you vote on the motion says very little about your feelings on the plight of Uyghurs. Of course, there are those who want your vote on this motion to be a test of who you are and what you stand for. I empathize with those of you who feel you must vote for the motion in order to not be typecast in a certain way. 

"That is why it is not easy for me to make this speech, which is likely to generate a torrent of reflexive denunciations and crude labeling from my umm… 'fan club'. I reject that kind of reductive logic and the insidious insinuations that come with it. It is an unfortunate reflection of our times that I even have to say this at the start of a speech in the Senate of Canada, but I am exploring with all of you what is in the best interests of Canada and Canadians.  I hope we can also make the same assumption about other Canadians—especially Chinese Canadians—who share some version of my views, but do not have the privilege and protections that I enjoy. 

"There is a worrying trend in this country where discussions about China and Canada-China relations are framed in Manichean terms, and where Canadians with connections to China are received with discomfort, suspicion, or outright hostility.

"The crux of the motion is the labeling of Chinese actions against Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a genocide. I would note that we have already passed a motion calling on the government to impose Magnitsky-style sanctions on Chinese officials responsible for human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and that motion does not include the genocide label. You already know my views on 'Magnitsky-style' motions but insofar as this chamber wants to demonstrate that 'action' needs to be taken, a motion advocating such has already been adopted. The current motion does not add any actionable measure specific to the Uyghur situation in China; it is simply an exercise in labeling. 

"We have heard various accounts about what is happening in Xinjiang, most of which is from American and Australian sources. But the best assemblage of information on Xinjiang is right here in Canada, at the University of British Columbia, by way of the Xinjiang Documentation Project

"It is extremely important for all of us to have as accurate and as comprehensive a fact base as possible, especially in forming a view on matters far removed from Canada. If you are interested in the issue of extra-judicial detention of Uyghurs, Kazahks, and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang, the UBC portal is a great place to start. The URL can be found in the text of my speech that will soon be posted on my Senate website.

"The UBC team does not tell us if the legal definition of genocide has been met, but I believe that there is no version of what is happening in Xinjiang that most Canadians would be comfortable with. Even if we accept the Chinese government’s explanation that their treatment of Uyghurs is for the benefit of the Uyghur community, that the motivation is to counter terrorist acts, that the camps are basically vocational training centers, that the demolition of mosques is in the name of infrastructure development and modernization—I think it is safe to say that most Canadians would still be appalled. That is why I understand that for our fellow parliamentarians in the other place, and for many of you, it might seem impossible to contemplate not voting for the motion.

"The fact that there is no version of what is happening in Xinjiang which Canadians can be comfortable with is as much a comment on us, as it is a comment on China. We have a view of individual liberties that is embodied in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms that we hold sacred, and which would not today allow our government to make mass arrests on the suspicion of terrorism, force whole communities to attend schools for what we perceive to be for their benefit, sterilize women so that they did not burden themselves and society with 'inferior' children, or relocate entire villages in order to give them modern amenities.

"Except that we did all those things, and we did them throughout our short history as a country, most appallingly to indigenous peoples, but also to recent immigrants and minority groups who were deemed undesirable, untrustworthy, or just un-Canadian.

"If the point of this motion is to remind us that the PRC is an illiberal, authoritarian state, I have a news flash for you: the PRC has been an illiberal, authoritarian state since its founding over 70 years. Without minimizing any of the repressive—perhaps even genocidal—acts against Uyghurs in recent years, the accusations against the Chinese government—forced relocation, demolition of traditional homes and ways of living, coercive birth control, mandatory re-education, suppression of individual rights—are as old as the PRC itself. Why do you think the Chinese government recently announced a policy to encourage families to have three children? Because they are trying to reverse the disastrous and often brutal one-child policy of previous decades that was forced on the entire population, especially Han Chinese.

"Perhaps the motivation behind this motion, and other motions like this one, is to point out that the PRC is indeed an illiberal and authoritarian state, and that—after 70 years—we should do something about it. This is of course the subtext of the geopolitical contest between the U.S. and China that will define at least the first half of this century, and which poses grave danger to the world. It is not just that U.S. and China are competing for markets as well as military and technological supremacy. There is more than a hint that the contest is between what some would deem as legitimate and illegitimate systems of government, with China clearly in the latter category. That notion is behind much of the current debate on Canada-China relations, which is increasingly framed as one in which we should pursue relations with 'good' Chinese people, but not the 'bad' Chinese state.

"The argument that the Chinese government is illegitimate is typically based on the observation that it is not democratic. You may be surprised to learn, therefore, that in a recent poll on the state of democracy around the world, 70 percent of Chinese respondents agreed with the proposition that the PRC is democratic, compared to 65 percent in Canada, 60 percent in India, and only 50 percent in the United States. On a different question about degrees of democracy, respondents in China expressed greater satisfaction with the status quo in their country than did respondents in Canada and the United States.

"If you are suspicious about the source of this poll, I can tell you that it is from an organization known as the Alliance of Democracies, which has as its mission the promotion of democracy and free markets, and is led by the former Danish Prime Minister and Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen.

"How is it possible, you say, when China does not even have elections for its government? Well, as political theorists will remind us, there are two kinds of state legitimacy: There is input legitimacy and there is output legitimacy. In the West, we tend to place much more emphasis on input legitimacy, which is essentially about how we select our representatives.

"Hence, the focus on free and fair elections. But in practice, citizens also confer legitimacy to their governments based on the results that are produced by that government—that is to say, on 'outputs'. Now, like most of you, I was brought up in the orthodoxy that input democracy through free and fair elections will in the long run outperform because citizens can always vote out a government that has not performed and in that way seek to improve outputs by changing the inputs.

"But we are learning the hard way that democratic elections and changes in the government over decades have not consistently produced better outcomes for citizens in many industrialized economies. Sure, there has been economic growth, but income and wealth inequality have increased, with stagnating median incomes, and growing societal tension. That is the reason for what is now widely observed to be the problem of democratic deficit in western industrialized economies, and the rise of populist leaders who have illiberal instincts but nevertheless command much support through democratic elections.

"I much prefer the vagaries of democratic choice to the certainty of authoritarian rule, but we cannot be smug about our preferences for input legitimacy as the only way to validate state power, and we cannot deny that the Chinese state has its own claim to a kind of legitimacy—even if we don’t like it.

"What does political theory have to do with the current motion? Well, the premise of the motion is that we have a special right to criticize an illiberal and authoritarian China because the government is illegitimate. Think a bit about gross human rights violations by states that are ostensibly liberal and democratic and the fact that there are no motions making similar criticisms of them and I think you will see what I mean.

"You might say 'Yes, I agree with Senator Woo’s observation. We should indeed adopt motions criticizing states that are responsible for violations of human rights in all instances, regardless of regime type.' But is this really what you want the Senate of Canada to be about? A body that passes judgment on the rest of the world with two or three paragraph motions that cannot possibly capture the complexity of a given situation?  

"There is a reason why Parliament has historically left matters of foreign affairs to the executive, as part of the Royal Prerogative. The management of relations with other countries, especially great powers, is exceedingly complex, and does not lend itself to one-off pronouncements which are based on the desire to perform without having the responsibility to manage.

"Yet, it seems the Senate is increasingly activist on foreign policy issues, with at least a dozen bills and motions directing the government to do this or do that on what is always a very narrow issue in a broader bilateral or multilateral relationship. It isn’t just that these actions are almost always gratuitous; it is also that they can be damaging to Canadian interests because of the distraction caused by the action, and the ability for our counterparts to use those distractions, sometimes cynically, to advance their own bargaining positions. In this respect, I wholly agree with Senator Harder that this motion and others like it are not helpful in resolving some of the most pressing problems in the Canada-China relationship today, especially efforts to secure the release of Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, who continue to languish in Chinese prisons.

"Does this mean that we say nothing about the plight of Uyghurs? No, we must find ways to dialogue with the Chinese on the situation in Xinjiang.  However, I do not believe the performance of a Senate labeling motion is the right way to do it.

"Let me share with you a version of how I broach this issue in my conversations with interlocuters.  I had one such interaction recently.

"To our Chinese friends, I say:

'We are hearing very troubling news about the situation facing Uyghurs in Xinjiang—that their religious and cultural rights are being repressed; that they have been sent to training centers against their will; that their leaders have been subjected to intimidation and abuse; that their very existence as a people is being threatened.

'We understand that your actions are motivated by the fight against terrorism, a desire to provide employable skills for minorities, the need to modernize infrastructure and upgrade living standards, and a wish for greater national cohesion.

'We understand because our country made these same claims in our treatment of indigenous people in Canada and of minority groups that had come to this country as immigrants.

'We had a system of residential schools for Indigenous children for over 140 years that sought to assimilate aboriginal peoples into mainstream society – ostensibly for their own good.

'It did not work. More than that, we have come to understand that the policy of Indian assimilation was not only ineffective, it was also morally wrong. The legacy of residential schools is one of individual and community trauma that will take generations to heal.  We convened a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2008 to try and better understand what went wrong and how we can fix those wrongs.  The findings were released in 2015 and we are still in the early stages of responding to all its recommendations.

'Many Canadians cannot listen to the news about Uyghurs, even your government’s version of what is going on in Xinjiang, without reflecting on how terribly wrong our own experiment with indigenous children in residential schools went. In making those reflections, Canadians are saying to Chinese friends that we don’t want you to make the same mistakes. We do so not because we have a superior moral position, not because we have the answers to the problems you are trying to solve, not because we want to embarrass China. We do it because of the pain we feel over what happened in our own country and for what we can learn from each other in not making such mistakes again.

'Each country functions within its unique historical, cultural, and political context, but we believe there are universal values to be upheld and common lessons that can be shared across borders. When it comes to the treatment of indigenous peoples and minorities, repression and forced assimilation only leads to longer-term problems for society at large. Canadians are still wrestling with those longer-term problems in our society and it is impossible for us to not express concern over what we hear about Xinjiang. We do it because we recognize our common humanity with Uyghurs and all peoples in China, and out of a desire for China to succeed as a nation of many ethnicities.'

"Honourable colleagues, this is how I approach the issue. I accept that for many of you, what happens today in Canada or happened in Canada decades ago is irrelevant to the question of whether we should label the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang as a genocide. I respect that point of view, but I hope you will consider that a labeling motion, such as this one, is not the only way to respond to legitimate and genuinely felt concerns of Canadians about the news coming out of western China. 

"The fact that there is an alternative should give you a reason to vote against this motion. And if you do vote against the motion, it is not because you are unconcerned about the human rights of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, but because you want to do something about it.

"Thank you."

Published in The Georgia Straight.