WE's history with Beijing, from endorsements in People's Daily to appearances at Chinese embassy
Amid the impressive array of endorsements, honorary degrees, actual degrees and accomplishments on Craig Kielburger’s LinkedIn page , one bit of acclaim particularly stands out.
His 2008 book Me to We: Finding meaning in a material world , was not just a New York Times bestseller, the profile says. It was also named “one of the best books for Chinese young people in People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the government of China, along with CCTV, China’s government broadcaster.”
Citing testimonials from an authoritarian regime’s chief print and television organs, though, is only one way the co-founder of the WE movement has forged ties with China.
WE Charity and its for-profit partner, Me to We, have had a significant presence there for years, performing development work in poor rural villages, holding at least two “mini” versions of their inspirational WE Day events and selling trips to Chinese youth that combined tourism and volunteer work.
Marc Kielburger, Craig’s brother and WE co-founder, was hosted by the Chinese ambassador to Canada at the Ottawa embassy in 2015, and Me to We was declared part of China’s celebrations of the 45 ^th anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic ties between Canada and Beijing.
The organization’s embrace of China mirrors in a sense the actions of myriad Canadian companies, post-secondary institutions and school boards eager to tap into the world’s second-biggest economy.
It also parallels the Liberal government’s policy until recently to broadly engage China.
But the response from Beijing seems part of an attempt by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), through its United Front Work Department (UFW), to co-opt such Western NGOs and burnish its own international image, says one critic of the regime.
“WE’s relationship with PRC has the classic signature of UFW at work,” said Ivy Li, spokeswoman for the group Canadian Friends of Hong Kong. “At the minimum, it tells us that UFW considers Kielburger and his book useful propaganda tools…. The CCP was essentially announcing to the Chinese people (and the world) that this Western guy is a ‘friend of China.’”
Despite continued reference online to its China connections, however, WE appears to have pulled back somewhat from the country.
It has not held a WE Day there in almost five years, no longer does “youth cultural trips” and its charity work is focused on supporting “past development projects,” said an unnamed WE spokesperson in response to questions.
It flatly denies having become cozy with Beijing authorities, or that China’s abysmal human-rights record calls into question its involvement in the country.
“WE Charity does not have a relationship with the Chinese government,” said the spokesperson via email. “WE Charity strives to ensure that all children, regardless of the political persuasion of their government, have access to healthcare, food security, and the fulfillment of their basic needs.”
The Kielburgers’ WE movement has attracted unprecedented scrutiny lately because of the untendered contract the federal government awarded it to run a student work program, despite close ties with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Some of that attention has focused on its unorthodox corporate structure, involving WE Charity and Me To We, a “social enterprise” that says it funnels most of its profits into the charity.
Both have been active in China.
WE Charity – formerly called Free the Children—- says it has built 250 school rooms , including multi-storey school buildings in rural China, spurred to action by reports in 2002 of child labourers being killed in a fireworks factory.
Meanwhile, Me To We has operated in China as a joint Sino-foreign venture since 2012, according to its Chinese website , catering to much more affluent schoolchildren. It says it engaged in quality international education, student exchanges between Canada and China and partnerships with official state bodies like the Beijing Dongcheng District Education Commission.
The trips for Chinese students included one to Fujian province. That involved studying the local culture, taking part in volunteer work and learning about the belt and road initiative, the infrastructure project that is a centrepiece of Beijing’s foreign policy, according to the company website .
And the group held “mini” versions of the flashy WE Day events that pack thousands of youth into arenas in North America and the United Kingdom.
At one in Beijing in 2015, former NBA star Yao Ming was among the presenters, according to a local news site, while a famous TV host appeared at a ME Day in Shanghai.
When Marc Kielburger and Victor Li, ME’s China-raised CFO, visited the embassy in Ottawa, then ambassador Luo Zhaohui praised ME for “promoting social welfare and charity programs, improving youth social responsibility consciousness and teamwork skills.“
Guy Saint-Jacques said the WE organization never popped onto his radar when he was Canada’s ambassador to China from 2012 to 2016, but said the official praise for Kielburger’s book might have been a response to incidents there in which bystanders callously ignored accident victims.
“It fits with the ideology of the CCP, ie., to be selfless and help others, etc.,” he said. “This happened at a time when the leadership was concerned that people were acting in very selfish ways, not providing assistance to someone injured.”
Li says she believes Beijing worked with WE for other purposes.
Those include helping to “build a gentle and benign facade for CCP, to provide evidence that CCP is working on human rights in China, CCP is trying hard to be ‘progressive left’, and to gain trust not just from WE, but from other similar NGOs and the international progressive left camp.”
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