Activism abroad

This week has seen 3 Canadian activists arrested, then later released, in China for activist related activities. As is often true in cases like this, the immediate media attention around the arrests focussed on the message of the protest for which the activists were arrested, and on ways to free them. What’s interesting in cases like these is that there is little effort to look at the incidents from a law and order perspective.

Whenever we travel the world, one of the main things we need to do is adapt to the local environment. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is not merely good advice that will make your relations easier … when it comes to local law and custom it can mean the difference between crime and innocence. When visitors come to Canada, for whatever reason, one of the basic assumptions made when granting entrance is that the visitor will respect the laws of Canada while in Canada. Even in the case of someone here to protest something, we expect that protest to happen within the bounds of Canadian law. Whether what the activists were trying to do was legal in their home country or not wouldn’t be an issue for Canadians or Canadian Justice … what matters is Canadian standards of legal justice, not the standards applied where the protesters came from.

The problem is, thats not how we seem to act when we go elsewhere. Canadians were arrested in China this week breaking the law in very obvious, public ways. The laws they broke aren’t hidden, or subtle … they are clearly denoted in the Chinese legal system. Whether we, as Canadians, agree with those laws isn’t really the point, as it wouldn’t be for Chinese protesters in Canada, breaking a Canadian law to protest anything in Canada. As we would expect the Chinese visitor in Canada to respect our laws, we should respect the laws of countries that we travel to as well.

Does that mean I don’t support the cause the activists were trying to draw attention to? Not at all … Tibet specifically, and Chinese policies of human rights in general, are important issues to me. Instead, I argue its necessary to look for ways to protest that are within the law, and if we are left with no alternatives but to break the law, then we shouldn’t be surprised when arrests take place. Part of the act of peaceful protest is being willing to accept and deal with the consequences of that protest, and it strikes me that one VERY predictable result of hanging a critical banner from the Great Wall, or openly criticizing the Chinese Government in a blog written in-country, is arrest.

Perhaps these protests were the only way to do something about the plight of Tibet, but I question what, really, either protest hoped to achieve. The stunt on the Great Wall was clearly a media event designed for television airplay … the notion that such a banner could have any impact on Chinese leadership, or on the Chinese public, is pretty naive. It was an illegal publicity stunt that seems more about raising the profile of the protesters instead of doing any REAL good for Tibet. The blogger is a bit of a different story in that she could have chosen to avoid dangerous subject material. Arguments that she shouldn’t have to avoid anything only play well until we stop to think that EVERY government sets a bar of things we cannot discuss without legal sanction … for us, the bar is, in part, in things our government deems “top secret” or “national security matters.” Canada also makes it illegal to engage in “hate speech” … whether you agree or disagree with the necessity or lack thereof of those measures, they constitute the same KIND of infringement on speech that Chinese rules do, if not the same level of infringement. That bar is lower in Chinese society, from our perspective, but its still simply a choice to limit discussion of certain kinds of information, and EVERY government on earth does that, according to its own needs.

Ultimately, its important to look more objectively at our dealings with other countries. There’s no doubt that we would frown on a foreign national coming to Canada with the intent to break Canadian law, in protest or otherwise. We wouldn’t care about the standards of justice where they came from, even if those standards were based on some claimed “human right.” What would matter is the Canadian take on that human right, not the foreign take on it. And yet, for some reason, when Canadians travel abroad, we expect our version of law and rights to travel with us. We are surprised when activists are arrested for doing illegal things, just because those things aren’t illegal in Canada. I do sympathize with the cause these activists were trying to draw attention to, but just as we would would expect a foreign national caught breaking the law in Canada to submit to Canadian law, shouldn’t we offer the same courtesy back to others? When in Rome, do as the Romans do … and when in China, don’t be surprised if hanging a “Free Tibet” banner from the Great Wall gets you arrested.


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