Ottawa -- It's a battle the federal cabinet probably wants no part of. But following the CRTC's decision to allow nine Chinese-language television channels to be broadcast in Canada, Stephen Harper and his ministers could find themselves in the middle of hostilities between China and some of its harshest critics.
Last spring, Rogers Communications (which owns Maclean's magazine and this website) applied for a licence to make the nine channels available as part of its specialty network. Known as the Chinese Great Wall Package, the stations are offered by the state-owned China International Television Corporation. Almost immediately, the move set off a firestorm among supporters of the Falun Gong movement.
Whereas its practitioners insist that it's a peaceful philosophy based around a simple exercise program, China has banned the practice of Falun Gong (also known as Falun Dafa) and labelled it a dangerous cult. Fearing that message, Falun Gong practitioners and supporters filed hundreds of submissions to the CRTC which called for the rejection of the application in the name of preventing "hate speech" and the targeting of minorities. Writing in the National Post last April, Falun Gong supporter Joel Chipkar claimed that the channels would "incite hatred and instill fanatic communist patriotism."
In response, Rogers spokesperson Nancy Cottenden pointed out that anyone who was offended by the channels could choose not to watch the package. And despite the concerted lobby to kill the bid, the CRTC ruled in favour of the broadcaster late last month.
With few avenues for appeal left, the Falun Dafa Association of Canada and allied groups are preparing to take the fight directly to the Conservative cabinet, which has the power to overturn the decision.
"This is not a freedom of speech issue; it’s a station that airs things that are against Canadian law, and is continuing to do so," FDAC spokesperson Lucy Zhou told Macleans.ca. "The CRTC decision is ridiculous."
According to Zhou, the application process was flawed and much of the evidence provided by groups opposed to the channels was dismissed by the CRTC. "There is abusive language towards Falun Gong, Japanese and Taiwanese people," she insists. "Just because they didn't see it doesn't mean it isn't going on."
In fact, the CRTC agreed that one of the channels had aired "abusive content" on two occasions, in 1999 and 2001. But its ruling concluded that "in light of the age of the stories and the absence of any concrete evidence as to similar comment," it wasn't possible to determine whether these incidents represented typical content.
Many Conservative MPs, including some now in cabinet, have been supportive of Falun Gong in the past. While in opposition, both Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay and Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day demanded that the Liberals do something to stop the harassment and surveillance of Falun Gong practitioners in Canada. And Justice Minister Rob Nicholson went even further, calling for the immediate suspension of all aid to China.
Now that they're the ones in power, though, the Tories may be finding the issue complicated by matters of diplomacy and trade. Last year, the confusion surrounding the Prime Minister's on-again off-again meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao raised questions over whether the government could be putting a major trade relationship at risk by taking a more aggressive stance on human rights. Later this month, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty will head to Beijing in an effort to sell Chinese government officials on the Canadian banking sector.
Meanwhile, on the political homefront, Conservatives are hoping to build political support in minority communities - including the same Chinese-Canadians who have become an increasingly desirable market for broadcasters like Rogers.
Still, at least one Conservative appears willing to risk international relations. And as it happens, that Conservative was just last week promoted to the newly created post of Secretary of State for Multiculturalism.
In opposition, Kenney was an outspoken critic of China's human rights abuses. While on an official visit with former prime minister Paul Martin, he was the first western politician to pay condolences to the family of Zhao Ziyang, a former Chinese leader who opposed the Tiananmen Square massacre. Then last June, with the Tories in office, he offered to travel to China on behalf of Huseyincan Celil - a Canadian citizen who was facing capital charges in China, allegedly due to his activism on human rights. And he also chaired the House Subcommittee on International Human Rights, which made Canada-China bilateral relations the subject of its inauguaral study.
During hearings last fall, the committee heard testimony from Falun Gong members who claimed that its practitioners faced persecution even outside China (as well as more lurid charges of forced organ harvesting by the Chinese government). Although it has yet to issue a report, Kenney has made clear that he believes human rights concerns trump trade considerations and promised that his government would address the issue "with clarity, and in a way that reflects Canadian values."
Last fall, Kenney suggested that the Chinese government was spying on his telephone conversations - a message that was leaked to the media at the height of the controversy over the PM's China policy.
With Kenney's new post, he gets a seat on the Cabinet Committee on Social Affairs - the natural jumping-off point for any proposal to consider overturning the CRTC ruling. Given his history, Kenney can count on intense lobbying from Falun Gong supporters.
Like so many other decisions, though, it will ultimately fall to Stephen Harper to decide whether to stick to his laissez faire philosophy on broadcast regulation or further antagonize the Chinese government by siding with its enemies.