Transport Minister John Baird, white shirt, Chinese ambassador Lan Lijun, to his left, MP Pierre Poilievre and Ontario MPP Jim Watson. (SPECIAL TO THE STAR/FILE PHOTO)
OTTAWA – There were no hurt feelings when Paul Dewar's face was cropped from the photograph.
The New Democrat MP (Ottawa Centre) said when someone called his office to invite him to a Chinese art show, he happily worked it into his schedule.
Only after he showed up and saw photos contrasting life in Tibet before and after the abortive 1959 revolt against Chinese rule did he realize he had been drawn into what activists are criticizing as a secretive travelling propaganda campaign.
The photo exhibit, entitled "Tibet: Past and Present," was described in websites of the Canadian embassy and foreign affairs ministry of the People's Republic of China as a celebration of 50 years since the end of serfdom in Tibet.
"After the democratic reform, the social system of Tibet has developed by leaps and bounds; its modernization has advanced rapidly; Tibetan society has undergone gigantic historic changes; and remarkable progress has been made in the cause of human rights, which has attracted worldwide attention," the May 14 press release stated.
The release mentions Dewar's presence at the May 9 launch, along with federal Transport Minister John Baird, provincial Housing Minister Jim Watson and Conservative MP Pierre Poilievre, (Nepean-Carleton), parliamentary secretary to Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Chinese ambassador Lan Lijun gave opening remarks at the old Nepean city hall building in Ottawa.
Chris Day, a spokesperson for Baird, said in an email that the minister saw the event purely as a chance to meet with riding constituents. Neither Watson nor Poilievre responded to requests for comment.
Chinese embassy spokeswoman Hailing Geng said yesterday she would have to learn more about the exhibit before commenting. She never called back.
Activists worry the politicians are being duped by a dubious rebranding campaign. Chinese authorities want to "use their names and use their attendance to propagate a sense of international support for their policies," said Tsering Lama, national director for Students for a Free Tibet Canada.
She described the exhibit as contrasting black-and-white images depicting Tibetans in horrible conditions pre-1959 with colour photos of them living happily with modern luxuries afterward.
The Montreal Chinese Community and Cultural Centre held a cocktail reception for the exhibit April 26 featuring Lijun and a handful of Quebec politicians.
Centre manager Anna Xu said she received the 80 photos from the Chinese embassy in Ottawa.
Montreal-area Liberal MP Alexandra Mendes described her surprise when she saw the exhibit.
"I was invited to attend the christening of the new dragon that the embassy had offered the centre," she said.
"When I got there, that's when I was told that there was going to be also the launch of this exhibition on Tibet and, obviously for questions of politeness, I wasn't going to turn my back and leave."
Dewar said he was not told the embassy had organized the exhibit.
"It's rather clumsy if you're trying to engage Canadians and politicians on a subject as sensitive as Tibet," he said.
"It's a curious way of doing diplomacy and I'm not sure how successful it is."
The press release – which is accompanied by a photo of the other Ottawa-area politicians attending at the event – does bring a comforting thought to his mind.
"I noted I wasn't in the picture, which is just fine," Dewar said with a chuckle.