Probe International in the News

Pussyfooting with China

Western NGOs that operate in China stay silent to remain in the Chinese Communist Party’s good books.

This article, by Lawrence Solomon, first appeared in the National Post on May 21, 2015

The largest dictatorship in the world, China with its 1.4 billion people, is today engaged in the most extensive crackdown on civil liberties since the Tiananmen massacre: NGOs have been shut down, thousands of citizens have been picked up by the police, the fates of many are unknown, none are expected to get a fair trial for “crimes” that include publishing books and studies, none are even expected to get a fair hearing for their plight in the state-controlled press.

At the same time, the largest democracy in the world, India with its 1.3 billion people, today enjoys a vibrant free press, a highly respected judiciary and a government newly elected on a promise to grow the economy through free market principles. Yet in a major study released this week by PEN International, PEN Canada and the University of Toronto Faculty of Law’s International Human Rights Program, the Indian government is condemned for stifling freedom of expression.

What would motivate PEN and U of T to attack the democracy and not the dictatorship? In part, perhaps, a distaste for India’s polarizing new prime minister, Narendra Modi, who won a landslide victory in national elections last year. In advance of Modi’s trip to Canada last month, Renu Mandhane, the Executive Director of U of T’s International Human Rights Program, and Tasleem Thawar, the Executive Director of PEN Canada, wrote Prime Minister Stephen Harper a letter on University of Toronto letterhead captioned “India’s dismal record on freedom of expression poses risk to Canada.”

Their letter, which announced they were releasing a report to mark Modi’s first year in office, urged Harper to “put freedom of expression on the agenda for this week’s talks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” Nowhere did Mandhane and Thawar make even a feeble case of any risk to Canada. Rather, the injustices they pointed to — for example, an Indian Supreme Court decision that upheld parts of a law making internet service providers responsible for libelous material they might carry — hardly warranted a dressing down of Modi by Harper. Such controversies, normal in a democracy, don’t rise to the level of what most Canadians would consider human rights abuses. Moreover, it is certainly not Harper’s business to second-guess a reasoned decision by the Supreme Court of India, let alone the laws enacted by India’s democratically elected legislature, in the process embarrassing a visiting head of government.

This week PEN and U of T were again untoward, saying in a press release, “Earlier this year, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs used an extensive arsenal of vague and overbroad laws to muzzle the world’s largest environmental watchdog, Greenpeace International” through “seemingly innocuous provisions in the Indian Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act.”

Those “seemingly innocuous provisions” prohibit foreign funding of political activities by charities. As PEN and University of Toronto Faculty of Law must know, Canada also prohibits charities from receiving foreign funds to engage in non-charitable activities, and severely limits any political activity by a charity. In fact, Canada long ago revoked Greenpeace Canada’s charitable status for engaging in political activity. Why the outrage over a democratic India appearing to follow in the footsteps of a democratic Canada? If Greenpeace India wants to remain a charity, it need only operate without foreign funding, some $2 million a year or 40 per cent of its budget, which it receives largely to influence decisions affecting climate change. That and an end to other non-charitable activities, which the Indian government alleges includes funding the political campaign of a former Greenpeace consultant.

India is a convenient target for social justice activists around the world because it is led by a reincarnation of Ronald Reagan, because it is on the wrong side of the climate change debate, and because it’s easy to attack India. Being a democracy, its government sees peaceful dissent, debate and demonstrations as the very stuff of daily life, and thus no existential threat. The study from PEN and U of T, entitled “Imposing Silence: The Use of India’s Laws to Suppress Free Speech,” would be unlikely to draw any retaliation.

Not so with China’s Communist Party, whose thin-skinned leadership fears for its very existence, and bullies those who question its human rights record. The threat of sanctions by China, particularly once China became an economic powerhouse, has chilled many organizations and countries, too, as seen in their reluctance to publicly welcome the Dalai Lama. The many thousands of Western NGOs that operate in China well understand this, and stay silent to remain in the Chinese Communist Party’s good books. This is the real face of “Imposing Silence.”

Lawrence Solomon is a policy analyst with Toronto-based Probe International. Email:

Reaction to this article

NGO wars: China has ‘serious challenges,’ too

Published by the National Post on June 1, 2015

We agree with Lawrence Solomon (Pussyfooting with China, 21 May 2015) that there are serious challenges to freedom of expression in China. That’s why, the same day that we released our report on free speech in India, PEN America released a report on politically motivated censorship in China, the second PEN report on China in two years. We endorse the findings of these reports; but surely Solomon cannot be suggesting that, because the situation may be worse in China, India should get a free pass on its dismal record regarding free expression.

Solomon treats the Indian government’s muzzling of Greenpeace India as analogous to what our own government has done with Greenpeace in Canada. It is not. The Indian government not only prevented Greenpeace India from receiving foreign funding, but, when it discovered that the organization enjoyed significant domestic financial support, it also went on to freeze their bank accounts entirely. Greenpeace India faces imminent closure.

Our research indicates that the Modi government continues to use laws to silence dissent, just as previous governments have done consistently since Partition. Modi campaigned on battling corruption and spurring development. The report outlines reforms that would promote the free expression needed to achieve those goals. Many of them would be relatively easy to implement, including repealing and amending outdated laws that unnecessarily restrict free speech.

We document numerous instances where governments and private citizens use these laws to silence others. The state of India’s administration of justice makes things worse; once charges are laid, it takes years for cases to be heard in court, making the process unbearable. We also outline reforms needed to address endemic corruption within the police force and legal system, which add to the problem. Clearly it is in India’s interests to address corruption and ensure a free press – this is also something its trading partners, including Canada, should encourage.

Renu J. Mandhane, Executive Director, International Human Rights Program, University of Toronto, Faculty of Law and Tasleem Thawar, Executive Director, PEN Canada

Lawrence Solomon responds: They’re still pussyfooting

PEN Canada and U of T’s International Human Rights Program (IHRP) do not agree with me in portraying China merely as having “serious challenges to freedom of expression in China.” In its campaigns, PEN Canada does not shy away from using clear, explicit language to describe abuses. The vague pussyfooting term “serious challenges” in no way describes the imprisonment, disappearances, blanket censorship and other totalitarian excesses that today face Chinese citizens who would dare to so much as write an analysis of the Chinese tax system or suggest an educational reform. In China, lawyers who would defend such citizens are themselves imprisoned. China is a tyranny when it comes to freedom of expression. Instead of speaking truth to power, these two organizations — with a mandate to protect free speech in the case of PEN, and to protect human rights in the case of IHRP —mealy-mouth one of the world’s worst violators.

I am also unimpressed with their rebuttal to my criticism of their case against freedom of expression in India. Rather than dissembling and attempting to change the subject, they should stop the spin and stick to the facts.

FACT: These two organizations are inexplicably silent on China’s ongoing crackdown, failing to so much as write a public letter of protest to China’s government or to Canadian politicians. At the same time, they did complain in a letter to Prime Minister Harper over Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to Canada last month, and did produce a sizable study excoriating India — the world’s largest democracy with one of the world’s freest presses — for alleged limitations on freedom of expression.

FACT: PEN America is not PEN Canada or the University of Toronto’s International Human Rights Program, and its recent study does not absolve PEN Canada and IHRP for poor judgment in pursuing a non-issue. But even if PEN Canada and IHRP had been parties to PEN America’s study, it would have had vanishingly little to do with the Chinese Communist Party crackdown on the freedom of expression of Chinese citizens. The PEN America study — entitled “Censorship and Conscience: Foreign Authors and the Challenges of Chinese Censorship” — is entirely directed at authors outside China whose work is altered by Chinese authorities, some of whom go along with the Chinese regime for fear of losing royalties. It is spin to suggest otherwise.

FACT: I do not agree that India has a dismal record on freedom of expression. I also don’t equate freedom of expression with the corruption, poor policing and other red herrings that they raise. Canada has corruption scandals, courts plagued by interminable delays, police forces charged with questionable conduct. No one I’m aware of has interpreted those failings as evidence that Canada curtails freedom of expression.

FACT: Contrary to their portrayal, India’s judicial system has generally been held in high regard, as has the freedom of its citizens to express themselves and of their NGOs to participate in their communities. According to a 2012 Human Rights Watch report, India has “a respected judiciary” as well as “a vibrant media [and] an active civil society.” Ironically, the independence of India’s judiciary has been demonstrated recently in the case of Greenpeace India, which saw the Delhi High Court order the Indian government to unlock Greenpeace India’s domestic bank accounts, so that it could continue to operate with domestic funds. That same court in January also sided with Greenpeace India against another government attempt to curb Greenpeace’s activities.

FACT: The Indian government has treated Greenpeace India with kid gloves compared to the Canadian government’s treatment of Greenpeace Canada. Greenpeace Canada permanently lost its charitable status; Greenpeace India retains its status, and is able to continue to fundraise within India, which provides it with 60 per cent of its budget. Moreover, the Indian government’s charges against Greenpeace are serious. These include failing to account for some 60 million rupees (about $1.2 million) and engaging in non-charitable functions such as financing a former Greenpeace consultant’s campaign for political office and paying villagers to obstruct development projects. These are far more egregious than the lesser charges that cost Greenpeace Canada its charitable status.

India does have human rights failings, though nothing on the scale seen in China. India’s record on “freedom of expression” is not one of them. [For the original version of this response, see the publisher’s website here: “NGO wars: China has ‘serious challenges,’ too”]

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