You could say that Miss World Canada 2015 has been crowned Miss International Incident.
That’s because her country of birth, China, has barred Anastasia Lin, a 25-year-old actor and classical pianist, from representing the country she now calls home, Canada, in the beauty pageant’s finals at the tropical island resort of Sanya, Hainan, on December 19.
Lin’s story has made headlines around the globe. But not in China. That’s where censorship is state policy, dissidents are jailed and any criticism anywhere by anyone can be stifled by the long arm of President Xi Jinping’s regime.
Academics, journalists, even Hollywood celebrities who speak out against human rights abuses in China are banned. So Lin is in good company, along with Richard Gere, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Bon Jovi and other stars.
Her crime could be that she follows the spiritual practice of Falun Gong, which China has outlawed as an “evil cult”. Its members have been jailed, tortured and, as reports suggest, murdered for their organs.
It could also be that Lin doesn’t just spout cliched paeans to world peace like beauty contestants typically do during the question-and-answer sections of pageants.
Through her film roles portraying Chinese dissidents and her music performances playing their songs, she lives her conviction that everybody is entitled to freedom of thought, religion and expression.
In 2013, when she first competed for the Miss World Canada title, and was quizzed on her beliefs, she quoted the late Canadian Prime Minister John Diefenbaker: “I am a Canadian free to speak without fear, free to worship in my own way, free to stand for what I think right, free to oppose what I think wrong, or free to choose those that shall govern my country. This heritage of freedom I pledge to uphold for myself and for all mankind.”
At first, her businessman father back in Hunan province celebrated. But then he went silent after hearing from authorities that suggested his daughter shut up.
Fear of reprisals
That pageant was when she first crossed China’s repression radar screen. The second time was last May, when she won first place. At first, her businessman father back in Hunan province celebrated. But then he went silent after hearing from authorities that suggested his daughter shut up.
Instead, Lin went public with their threats, gave media interviews, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post, and even testified before a US Congressional committee on human rights. Now her father won’t talk to her and has cut off all financial support for fear of reprisals.
In a telephone interview with Al Jazeera from her Hong Kong hotel room, Lin admits: “I don’t dare to contact my father nowadays. He’s really scared.”
Still, Lin was determined to go for the world crown. So the University of Toronto graduate in international relations and drama sold her car to finance her trip. But last week, while she was on the flight to Hong Kong, the Chinese embassy in Ottawa issued a terse statement, effectively calling her “persona non grata”.
“Why did they wait so many weeks?” she asks. “I never got a definitive answer about my visa from the Chinese government and I lost contact with Miss World too, although they did offer me a spot in the 2016 pageant [in Jakarta]. It seemed they were very reluctant in answering my questions. I sent them my photographs but they never even put them on their website.”
Soft-pedalling soft power
Considering the relationship the London-based Miss World Ltd has with China, that’s hardly surprising. In 2003, as part of its attempt to soft-peddle its soft power, it opened its luxurious Sanya Beauty Crown Hotel complex specifically to host Miss World, which it has done five times since. The 2015 contest will be its sixth.
As Lin told reporters at a news conference in Hong Kong last week, “Ask them whether they will also bar athletes from participating in the 2022 Winter Olympics if they hold views that the Communist Party disagrees with. If an athlete is of Tibetan or Uighur heritage, and advocates for the human rights of those peoples, can they compete in the Olympics? What if they practise Falun Gong? Or if they support democracy in China?”
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Lin says: “If China wants to be viewed as a respected member of the international community, it needs to play by international rules. Barring international contestants is the best way to show that it is extremely insecure about its conduct being exposed.”
Meanwhile, she is disappointed in the Canadian government’s lack of support.
But she shouldn’t be. China is Canada’s second-biggest trading partner after the US. What’s more, earlier this month at the G20 Summit in Antalya, Turkey, newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau met with Xi and pledged “an era of greater cooperation and mutual benefit for both Canada and China in the coming years”.
Which is probably why Canadian consular officials in Hong Kong suggested that Lin simply has a visa problem that is not a matter for its Ministry of Global Affairs.
“This is totally not a visa issue,” Lin insists. “This is a Canadian whose rights are being stifled. I’m a Canadian being punished by a foreign government and barred from an international contest because I spoke my mind. I didn’t do it for money. I am not a human rights activist. I was simply true to my culture as a Canadian. It has not been easy.
“I feel so alone. Nobody is taking a stand.”
Antonia Zerbisias is an award-winning Canadian journalist. She has been a reporter and TV host for the Toronto Star and the CBC, as well as the Montreal correspondent for Variety trade paper.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.