Dos and don’ts for Trudeau raising human rights in China

There’s one question Prime Minister Justin Trudeau can be certain reporters will ask him on his first official trip to China this week.

“Did you bring up human rights?”

And it won’t stop there.

“Did you bring up human rights forcefully enough? Frequently enough? Are you putting trade before human rights?”

Journalists have asked variations of these questions for decades, grasping for some way to ensure politicians aren’t abandoning principle as they try to build ties to countries, such as China, with a record of high-profile human rights abuses.

Reporters might be asking about a Canadian who has been detained or referring to broader questions about how the country treats its citizens.

Either way, reporters often find the answer to “the human rights question” wildly unsatisfying. The answer is inevitably some variation of “Yes, of course,” without much sense of the intensity or efficacy of the discussion.

So, what really happens behind closed doors?

Trudeau G20 20151116

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Chinese President Xi Jinping for bi-lateral meeting at the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey last November. (Canadian Press)

Avoiding ultimatums

Trudeau leaves Monday for a week-long tour, where he’ll try to expand Canada’s economic relationship with China. His stops will include Beijing and Shanghai.

Rule No. 1 for Canadian officials, according to former Canadian ambassador to China David Mulroney, is to avoid being told “No” right off the bat.

“People think we should just have our minister or the prime minister pound on the desk and make it clear. That’s very satisfying for about two minutes and then you realize the door is shut and there’s no further possibility.”

“What you’re trying to do is nudge, push, edge the issue towards a positive conclusion.”

Most progress happens over the medium to long term, said Mulroney, who is now president of St.

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