How a Longtime Canadian ‘Friend of China’ Became an Outspoken Critic of Beijing’s Human Rights Record

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston says Chinese officials need to know Canada is watching closelyWhen Margaret McCuaig-Johnston first began speaking out against the Chinese communist regime’s human rights abuses, the former senior government official had been “a friend of China for 40 years” and had “helped them develop their innovation capacity.” Today, she says “Canadians should speak truth to power every time they meet with Chinese officials.” “The final straw for me and for many Canadians was the kidnapping of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” said McCuaig-Johnston at “The Challenge of China” conference in Ottawa on June 3. Organized by the University of Ottawa, where McCuaig-Johnston is a senior fellow with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the conference was focused on “protecting human rights and democracy in the global institutions of the 21st century.” McCuaig-Johnston is also a senior fellow with the University of Alberta’s China Institute and a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. She had a 37-year career in government during which time she held senior management positions and for seven years was a member of the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology. She said she first took an interest in China in 1978 when she was a civil servant in the Ontario government. The country was in the midst of its first democracy movement, opening up after isolating from the outside world for decades and having launched various political campaigns that killed millions of its people. “It started in December 1978, when an electrician at the Peking Zoo, Wei Jingsheng, posted an essay on a stone wall running from Xidan Street along West Chang An Avenue towards Tiananmen Square,” McCuaig-Johnston said, referring to the “Xidan Democracy Wall” during that period in Beijing’s Xicheng District. “His poster called for a ‘Fifth Modernization’ of democracy in response to [former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader] Deng Xiaoping’s essay on the Four Modernizations of agriculture, defence, industry, and science and technology.” Wei’s essay on the wall was soon joined by other posts put up by workers’ groups and students in protest over political and social issues in China. McCuaig-Johnston, who decided to go to China with her husband for an extended visit to “see the wall for ourselves,” said this visit “propelled me to learn more Mandarin and do a master’s [degree] in international relations focused on China.” The movement didn’t last long. Deng, who initially seemed to endorse the posters, eventually turned his back on the activists, McCuaig-Johnston said. Wei was arrested in March 1979, served 18 years in prison, and was exiled to the United States in 1997 after former U.S. president Jimmy Carter intervened on his behalf with then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin. A Chinese man stands alone blocking a line of tanks heading east on the Avenue of Eternal Peace during what is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in Beijing, China, on June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP Photo) ‘Bad Nightmare’ McCuaig-Johnston said the shutdown of the Xidan Democracy Wall movement was a prelude to the CCP’s response to the student protests on Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989. “As many as a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square, and millions others participated in shadow protests in 400 cities across the country, calling for democracy. And just like the Xidan wall, the leadership permitted and even encouraged it—until the day they didn’t,” she said. “Sending in the tanks on the Friday and Saturday was a shock to many people in the West. And it was said that even more people were killed in the streets of Beijing that night than had died in the square.” However, the “bad nightmare” of what’s known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre did not deter Prime Minister Jean Chrétien from wanting to increase trade with China when he took office in 1993, McCuaig-Johnston said. “He was explicit that human rights and trade discussions should not be mixed,” she noted, adding that although Chrétien initiated a bilateral dialogue on human rights at the same time, the Chinese side wasn’t receptive and the dialogue was terminated nine years later. McCuaig-Johnston said successive prime ministers, including Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau, also met with no success when they tried discussing human rights issues with Beijing. A facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in Artux, north of Kashgar in China’s western Xinjiang region, on June 2, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images) Surveillance While noting that what galvanized her to become a vocal critic of the CCP was Kovrig’s and Spavor’s arbitrary detention, she said that by that time she’d already had concerns about human rights in China on a number of other fronts. These included Chinese surveillance technology companies, including ones engaged in partnerships with Ca

How a Longtime Canadian ‘Friend of China’ Became an Outspoken Critic of Beijing’s Human Rights Record

Margaret McCuaig-Johnston says Chinese officials need to know Canada is watching closely

When Margaret McCuaig-Johnston first began speaking out against the Chinese communist regime’s human rights abuses, the former senior government official had been “a friend of China for 40 years” and had “helped them develop their innovation capacity.” Today, she says “Canadians should speak truth to power every time they meet with Chinese officials.”

“The final straw for me and for many Canadians was the kidnapping of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor,” said McCuaig-Johnston at “The Challenge of China” conference in Ottawa on June 3.

Organized by the University of Ottawa, where McCuaig-Johnston is a senior fellow with the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, the conference was focused on “protecting human rights and democracy in the global institutions of the 21st century.”

McCuaig-Johnston is also a senior fellow with the University of Alberta’s China Institute and a distinguished fellow at the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada. She had a 37-year career in government during which time she held senior management positions and for seven years was a member of the Canada-China Joint Committee on Science and Technology.

She said she first took an interest in China in 1978 when she was a civil servant in the Ontario government. The country was in the midst of its first democracy movement, opening up after isolating from the outside world for decades and having launched various political campaigns that killed millions of its people.

“It started in December 1978, when an electrician at the Peking Zoo, Wei Jingsheng, posted an essay on a stone wall running from Xidan Street along West Chang An Avenue towards Tiananmen Square,” McCuaig-Johnston said, referring to the “Xidan Democracy Wall” during that period in Beijings Xicheng District.

“His poster called for a ‘Fifth Modernization of democracy in response to [former Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader] Deng Xiaoping’s essay on the Four Modernizations of agriculture, defence, industry, and science and technology.”

Wei’s essay on the wall was soon joined by other posts put up by workers’ groups and students in protest over political and social issues in China.

McCuaig-Johnston, who decided to go to China with her husband for an extended visit to “see the wall for ourselves,” said this visit “propelled me to learn more Mandarin and do a master’s [degree] in international relations focused on China.”

The movement didn’t last long. Deng, who initially seemed to endorse the posters, eventually turned his back on the activists, McCuaig-Johnston said. Wei was arrested in March 1979, served 18 years in prison, and was exiled to the United States in 1997 after former U.S. president Jimmy Carter intervened on his behalf with then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.

Epoch Times Photo
A Chinese man stands alone blocking a line of tanks heading east on the Avenue of Eternal Peace during what is known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre, in Beijing, China, on June 5, 1989. (Jeff Widener/AP Photo)

Bad Nightmare

McCuaig-Johnston said the shutdown of the Xidan Democracy Wall movement was a prelude to the CCP’s response to the student protests on Tiananmen Square from April to June 1989.

“As many as a million people gathered in Tiananmen Square, and millions others participated in shadow protests in 400 cities across the country, calling for democracy. And just like the Xidan wall, the leadership permitted and even encouraged it—until the day they didn’t,” she said.

“Sending in the tanks on the Friday and Saturday was a shock to many people in the West. And it was said that even more people were killed in the streets of Beijing that night than had died in the square.”

However, the “bad nightmare” of what’s known as the Tiananmen Square Massacre did not deter Prime Minister Jean Chrétien from wanting to increase trade with China when he took office in 1993, McCuaig-Johnston said.

“He was explicit that human rights and trade discussions should not be mixed,” she noted, adding that although Chrétien initiated a bilateral dialogue on human rights at the same time, the Chinese side wasn’t receptive and the dialogue was terminated nine years later.

McCuaig-Johnston said successive prime ministers, including Paul Martin, Stephen Harper, and Justin Trudeau, also met with no success when they tried discussing human rights issues with Beijing.

Epoch Times Photo
A facility believed to be a re-education camp where mostly Muslim ethnic minorities are detained, in Artux, north of Kashgar in China’s western Xinjiang region, on June 2, 2019. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Surveillance

While noting that what galvanized her to become a vocal critic of the CCP was Kovrig’s and Spavor’s arbitrary detention, she said that by that time she’d already had concerns about human rights in China on a number of other fronts.

These included Chinese surveillance technology companies, including ones engaged in partnerships with Canadian researchers; the incarceration of one million Uyghurs; militarization of the islands in the South China Sea; and military threats to Taiwan.

“And the execution sentences on Robert Schellenberg, and the three Chinese Canadians whose sentences tracked [Meng Wanzhou’s] court appearances, and whose Canadian citizenship, like Huseyin Celil’s, is not recognized by Beijing, so it can deprive them of access by our embassy,” McCuaig-Johnston said.

She said she was in Shanghai when Kovrig and Spavor were arrested and her own locked suitcases in her hotel room were unlocked and searched.

“I mentioned the Michaels’ detentions to a Chinese executive with whom I was meeting. He said, ‘Oh yes, China has a list of 100 Canadians that [it] can pick up and interrogate at any time,’” she said

“When I returned home, two other Canadians mentioned the list, and one said I might be on it for my work on joint ventures.”

She decided to speak out, doing her first interview ever with the media.

“Since I was speaking out about the detentions there were a lot of other things that I thought deserved the spotlight shone on them, particularly in my wheelhouse of China’s technology development,” she said.

“For example, these Chinese surveillance technology companies are a huge human rights concern being used against the Uyghurs, Tibetans, and in general population control.”

She added that China has moved into senior ranks in international standards organizations to ensure its technologies can be sold internationally, including the technology platform of BGI Genomics, which provides genomic sequencing and related services to customers in over 100 countries.

“China’s BGI is collecting genetic data from Canadians and sending it to China to be stored in China’s huge database,” she said.

Epoch Times Photo
Surveillance cameras are seen in front of a Huawei logo in Belgrade, Serbia, on Aug. 11, 2020. (Marko Djurica/Reuters)

McCuaig-Johnston said that while she welcomed the federal government’s recent ban of Huawei Technologies from Canada’s 5G network, she is concerned that the uninstalling of its technology will take too long.

“I’m concerned that Telus has been installing Huawei 5G hardware and software for the past two years, and now has been given another two years before it has to be taken out of their systems by June 2024,” she said.

“That’s four years total exposure, we now have, to the very 5G national security concerns we’ve wanted to avoid, with Huawei doing fixes and updates via backdoors on a weekly basis,” she said.

Untold Horrors

McCuaig-Johnston says it’s important for Chinese officials to “realize that we are all watching every one of these developments closely.”

She recounted that during her last trip to China in December 2018, she had dinner with a long-acquainted senior CCP official and raised concerns about the Uyghurs who had died in the so-called re-education camps. She is a member of the Uyghur Rights Advocacy Project policy adviser team.

“His reply was, ‘People die everywhere all the time.’ To which I replied, ‘Not healthy young people,’ for which he just gave a blank stare.”

Still, McCuaig-Johnston says that “those who are in touch with Chinese officials must raise these issues as often as they can.”

She said that if she ever returns to China, she would focus on the 1.8 million Uyghur and Tibetan children who have been put in re-education camps “where their language and culture are being drummed out of them.”

“They are learning [CCP leader] Xi Jinping thought and they are not receiving adequate food or clothing. Each one is a little child experiencing untold horrors and wondering every day, why their parents are not coming to rescue them. That is what the Xi regime is doing to its own people.” she said.


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Isaac Teo is an Epoch Times reporter based in Toronto.