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Canada, Nortel and China: Dancing with the Devil?

By Bill King
web posted July 26, 2004

This past June marked the 15th anniversary of the brutal suppression by China's People's Liberation Army of pro-democracy student activists, and the thousands of ordinary citizens who supported them, in Tiananmen Square and throughout Beijing. Fifteen years later, the Chinese government continues to oppress its own people by denying them the most basic democratic rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to choose their leaders through free elections.

But today there is a new and even more repressive aspect to the control that the Chinese Communist Party wields over the Chinese people—an aspect that is apparently being facilitated by, among others, Canada's very own Nortel Networks. It's something that should be of concern to all Canadians, and that deserves the attention of the federal government, if our nation's oft-stated concern for human rights is to be taken as more than rhetoric.

Chinese internet users
Chinese internet users

In the decade that followed the repression of Tiananmen Square, many here in the West believed that the internet would bring increased access to information and ideas in China, and thus usher in an era of increased freedom. This rosy equation became almost a truism for the many advocates of technology-inspired social change during the heady days of the "dot.com" revolution in the mid to late 1990's.

Many in the business community also promulgated such a view, particularly but not exclusively those in the telecommunications and software sectors, who, as China's Communist rulers embraced market mechanisms and integration into the world economy, drew an overly simplistic and deterministic connection between "free markets and free minds".

More than a decade later, there has still been no consummation of the much anticipated coupling of free(er) markets and free minds. Despite the opening to the market, the Communist Party retains as tight a grip as ever on Chinese society. And right from the very beginning, the regime in Beijing saw the internet as a threat to its monopoly on information and moved to curtail its impact—just as Communist dictatorships have always done when they perceive a threat to their power.

So while the internet in China has expanded at a tremendous rate since the mid 1990's, so too has the Communist government's attempt to control and censor what Chinese citizens see, read and write on it. It is by now well known here in the West that web sites with political content or news that the Communist Party deems "unfriendly" cannot be accessed in China. And search engines, even ones based outside China, come up blank when offensive terms such as "democracy" are entered.

As Amnesty International points out in its most recent report on the internet in China, there is a long list of items that cannot even be commented on without threat of punishment by the authorities:

Signing online petitions, calling for reform and an end to corruption, planning to set up a pro-democracy party, publishing "rumours about SARS", communicating with groups abroad, opposing the persecution of the Falun Gong and calling for a review of the 1989 crackdown on the democracy protests are all examples of activities considered by the authorities to be "subversive" or to "endanger state security". Such charges almost always result in prison sentences. (Amnesty International, " People's Republic of China : Controls tighten as Internet activism grows ", January 28, 2004).

And this list is far from exhaustive. More disturbing yet is that through advanced technology the Chinese authorities are increasingly becoming able not only to filter and censor what people see and read, but to monitor those who speak out, in real time, when they use the internet.

The biggest outrage of all though, is that the Chinese government has created its internet censorship and surveillance system with the help of North American companies. As described by Amnesty International in a series of reports in 2002 and again this year; by Greg Walton of Canada's International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development in his 2001 report entitled "China's Golden Shield"; by Ethan Guttman in his recent book Losing the New China; and by articles in the mainstream press ranging from the Asia Pacific Post to Newsweek International, companies such as Cisco, Sun Microsystems, and Yahoo have knowingly provided the Chinese government with the technology needed to carry out its filtering, monitoring and surveillance activities. [1]

A more troubling question, especially for Canadians, is the role in all this of Nortel Networks. Far from playing a minor role in providing China with the technology needed for its repressive policies, the Canadian company has in fact been singled out as a main player. As Ethan Guttman puts it in his book, Nortel, "…aggressively went after the surveillance market in China". And in the most comprehensive report on the subject, "China's Golden Shield", Greg Walton details how Nortel marketed its technology to China's state security apparatus, the Ministry of Public Security (MPS), for their "Golden Shield" surveillance project—a project that reaches beyond the internet:

At the Security China 2000 conference Nortel Networks was promoting the JungleMUX digital surveillance network and its OPTera Metro portfolio to the MPS. JungleMUX is a state-of-the-art system for transporting surveillance video from a network of remote cameras back to a control centre. [….] One of the stated objectives of the Golden Shield project is the establishment of a nationwide network of closed-circuit television or CCTV cameras in public spaces to improve police response times to outbreaks of social unrest [….] Such a system requires advanced network architecture, capable of spanning a country as large as China, and Nortel's presentation of its JungleMUX system at Security China 2000 spoke directly to that need. (Greg Walton, "China's Golden Shield", International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2001).

Is this what a Canadian company should be doing in China? And how are Nortel's activities in China consistent with Foreign Affairs Canada's claim that, " Canada remains very concerned about the human rights situation in China "? It also begs the more important question: what is the Canadian government doing about this?

To date, the Liberal government's approach to China has been based on the belief that, "… engagement, rather than isolation, will effect a sustained improvement in the human rights situation". But China is now our third largest trading partner and our largest source of new immigrants; any talk of Canada "isolating" China today is at best a red herring.

The question that needs to be posed is what type of engagement Canada is to have with China . And surely, it should not be the type that says "anything goes" for Canadian companies in their dealings with China 's Communist dictators. At the end of the day, for the Canadian government to be closing its eyes while Canadian companies help the Chinese government do its dirty work is not "engagement". It's appeasement.

As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our support for human rights and democratic values. In order for this commitment to be made tangible, and not be just so many words on paper, there must be a clear linkage between trade and human rights. But more than mere expressions of concern, there are at least two specific areas with regards to trade with China that should be addressed.

The first is that there is currently no federal government body that addresses the non-economic aspects of Canadian trade with China. In the United States there is the bi-partisan commission called the United States-China Economic and Security Review Commission, whose mandate is "to review the national security implications of trade and economic ties between the United States and the People's Republic of China". While Canadian and US interests are of course very different with regards to China, and any Canadian body would have a much different mandate than an equivalent American one, the underlying idea of closely observing all possible ramifications of trade with China is a sound one. Given the allegations against Nortel, Canada needs a federal watchdog committee to monitor companies that are doing business with the Chinese government.

The second is that while the federal Export and Import Controls Bureau (which is designed to provide controls on foreign trade), has controls in place to prevent the provision of dual-use technology and military goods to countries that "threaten Canada's security… and/or abuse the human rights of their own citizens", there appear to be no controls in place to prevent Canadian companies from providing non-military goods to foreign governments that will use them for human rights abuses. [2] In light of what is seemingly occurring with Nortel, it would behoove Foreign Affairs Canada, and its new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Pierre Pettigrew, to introduce appropriate controls on the types of goods and services that Canadian companies can provide the Chinese authorities—even if it means raising the ire of some Canadian corporations.

Taking such steps would imply a recognition that China will not "naturally" evolve into a liberal democracy simply due to the growth of a market economy. Of course, it would be foolish to deny that there have been many changes in China since 1989. And no one would confuse today's China with the Stalinist throwback that is North Korea. Yet China still remains a repressive Communist dictatorship, as its jails and torture chambers testify to, and the nature of the regime must by definition lend a different quality to the nature of our trading relationship with it. We cannot afford to proceed with "business as usual" as if China were any other non-Communist trading partner.

The Chinese people deserve our support in their difficult struggle for increased freedom and democracy. If it is not part of Canadian "tradition" to actively help foster the demise of the tyrants in Beijing, we at the very least should not be aiding and abetting the oppression of the Chinese people through our corporations. The fact that the Canadian government has not taken any action or even commented on the nature of Nortel's business dealings with the Chinese government raises the question of how serious Canada's declared concern for human rights in China really is. We owe the memory of those who died in Tiananmen Square and throughout Beijing much more than that.

Bill King is a freelance writer in Surrey, BC. His writings have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor and Vancouver Sun.


[1] Amnesty International, "People's Republic of China: State Control of the Internet in China", 26 November, 2002, http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engasa170072002; Amnesty International, "People's Republic of China: State Control of the Internet in China: Appeal Cases", 26 November 2002, http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engasa170462002; Amnesty International, "People's Republic of China: Controls tighten as Internet activism grows", 28 January, 2004, http://web.amnesty.org/library/index/engasa170012004; Greg Walton, "China's Golden Shield: Corporations and the Development of Surveillance Technology in the People's Republic of China", International Centre for Human Rights and Democratic Development, 2001, http://www.ichrdd.ca/english/commdoc/publications/globalization/goldenShieldEng.html; Ethan Gutmann, Losing the New China (Encounter Books: 2004); Paul Mooney, "China's Cyber Crackdown", Newsweek International, 16 December, 2002, http://www.pjmooney.com/cybernwk.shtml; Asia Pacific Post, "Why is Nortel helping China jail Internet users?", June 17, 2004, http://www.asianpacificpost.com/news/article/136.html.

[2] "About the Export and Import Controls Bureau (EICB)" , Export and Import Controls Bureau, Department of International Affairs and International Trade, http://www.dfait-maeci.gc.ca/eicb/eicbintro-en.asp.

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