Politician finds he's landed in Beijing hot seat

PUBLISHED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 18 August, 2008, 12:00am


When Vancouver sent an official delegation to the Beijing Games, it probably had every right to expect a pleasant time. As hosts of the next Winter Games, it was in Beijing to glad-hand with sponsors, meet IOC members, praise the current host country and spread the word about their upcoming turn as hosts.

So it was with a mixture of surprise and unease that Premier Gordon Campbell of British Columbia found himself being put on the hot seat by the press last week.

The premier, whose meeting was supposedly to promote the Vancouver media centre for the 2010 Games, came under tough questioning. The Chinese press grilled him on a range of issues that, while familiar to Vancouver residents, have scarcely occupied the international spotlight. A reporter from China Daily asked the premier about the two main problems facing 2010: the safety of the road to co-host city Whistler and the growing number of homeless people on Vancouver's streets.

Mr Campbell was asked how the government would deal with groups intent on disrupting the Games. Groups including the Anti-Poverty Committee have disrupted Olympics-related announcements as they highlight the number of homeless in the city.

Mr Campbell said protesters would be allowed to have their say.

'In Canada we will be open to opportunities for people to express whatever views they have,' he said. While no one would be allowed to break the law, the government planned to allow people to express their views.

The reporter also asked Mr Campbell about the recent rockslide that temporarily shut down the road to Whistler, and what contingencies were in place to prevent a recurrence during the Games.

Mr Campbell's answer, in which he said it was the sort of thing that happened only once in 200 years, didn't seem to convince anyone (there have been four major rockslides in the same area in the past 50 years). The tough line of questioning was justified, but it also sent a message from China.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper opted to skip the opening ceremonies of the Games and his absence has been noticed.

Unlike the previous Liberal government, the Conservatives are more aloof towards China. While the prime minister didn't say he was staying away from Beijing because of his objections to the country's human rights record, his decision is viewed by some as a boycott.

An article in Embassy, Canada's foreign policy weekly, noted that the prime minister's decision not to go to Beijing came at a heightened time of nationalism in China.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the list of 100 countries granted 'approved destination' status for Chinese travellers - including Rwanda and the Cook Islands. Canada initially signed an agreement to secure such status in 2005 after five years of negotiations by the previous Liberal government. But since the Conservatives took over in 2006, those talks have bogged down and Canada still doesn't have approved-destination status from the Chinese. Until Canada's prime minister deigns to visit China, it looks unlikely that such an agreement will be finalised.

Tomorrow: New York