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Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada's ambassador to China, speaks at a meeting in Beijing on Sept. 30, 2016. (JASON LEE/REUTERS)
Guy Saint-Jacques, Canada's ambassador to China, speaks at a meeting in Beijing on Sept. 30, 2016. (JASON LEE/REUTERS)

Extradition talks with China could take years, Canadian diplomat says Add to ...

Negotiations on an extradition treaty with China could still be years away, Canada’s top diplomat in Beijing says, weeks after the two countries agreed to begin discussing the cross-Pacific transfer of accused criminals.

The controversial agreement has raised concern about the concessions Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is making with Chinese leadership, at a time Beijing has trumpeted a new golden era with Ottawa.

But the two countries have agreed only to “discussions” on such a treaty, a step removed from negotiations, and “it could be years” before formal talks begin, Canadian ambassador to China Guy Saint-Jacques said in an interview in Beijing.

Canadian officials first want to explain the requirements of Canada’s courts, including standards of evidence, before sitting down to discuss details of an actual treaty.

They believe that in doing so, Canada can use extradition talks to prod China into improving a justice system plagued with problems, including police who torture, courts that take orders from the Communist Party and judges who order the execution of those found guilty of economic crimes.

“It will be an education process that will have to take place,” Mr. Saint-Jacques said.

“Our hope is to expose them to how we administer justice, how our police forces work to accumulate evidence – and hopefully this will have some influence on how they work,” he said.

Canada can use successful extraditions to the U.S. as examples of how such cases can be raised and prosecuted, he said.

Still, any hope for change in China is set against the country’s direction under president Xi Jinping, whose pursuit of legal reforms has been overshadowed by a broad-based war on Western values and foreign influence. That has included arresting and jailing, often with lengthy sentences, the very lawyers willing to defend victims of torture and judicial mistreatment.

For China’s leadership, mere discussion of an extradition treaty with Canada amounts to victory, since it sends a deterrence message Beijing wants would-be fugitives to hear. “Even to start the process would be kind of a political win, to some extent, for China,” said William Nee, China researcher at Amnesty International.

China also sees “discussions” as a quick step toward formal talks. The agreement with Canada “marks great progress toward formally signing in the near future a bilateral extradition treaty between the two countries,” Huang Feng, a law professor at Beijing Normal University, told the state-run China Daily.

Other Western countries, most notably France and Australia, have already signed extradition treaties with China, meaning Beijing has a template from which it will not want to deviate.

Canada, meanwhile, has already shown itself willing to make concessions on criminal issues. It became the first country to sign an agreement with China on the return of forfeited assets. Ottawa is also considering a scheme to let Chinese experts help the Canada Border Services Agency with “the verification of the identity of inadmissible persons from mainland China.”

China, the rising superpower, has grown less open to concession. Confident in its global power, it is generally more hostile to outside ideas. And the international community now has far less leverage than in the years China sought membership in the World Trade Organization.

Then, it made real changes to its judicial system, making it more accessible and transparent. Under Mr. Xi, by comparison, “what’s happening now is this closing off and retrenchment,” said Neysun Mahboubi, a research scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China. “The traditional levers are all almost gone.”

It’s possible that China’s hunt for alleged overseas fugitives could offer a new lever, though it’s not clear it will prove effective.

“Is the interest in bringing back corrupt officials sufficient to give foreign actors or governments a major voice in the development of the Chinese legal system?” Mr. Mahboubi asked. “It just seems unlikely, on its face.”

The need to reform China’s criminal justice system is long-standing, and “the low-hanging fruits have been largely picked off already,” said Bing Ling, professor of Chinese law at Sydney Law School. “Any further progress is likely to be difficult.”

But legal experts and human-rights advocates alike said if Canada is willing, it has a chance to press China for judicial change.

Canada is in a stronger position to negotiate than other nations because it has been named by China as the second most-attractive destination for alleged corruption fugitives, surpassed only by the U.S. China is eager for new legal avenues to get those people back.

“So there is very much at stake in this issue. And in order to make the most out of this, I think China might be willing to make more compromises,” said Qiao Liu, executive deputy editor-in-chief of the Chinese Journal of Comparative Law.

There are obvious places to push.

China in the past half-decade has removed the death penalty as a possible punishment for 21 crimes. Canada could urge Beijing to end execution for all economic and drug crimes, and to publish all capital punishment statistics, Mr. Nee said.

“Western countries, including Canada, really need to take human rights seriously, and ensure they’re not signing an extradition treaty that would enable China to abuse human rights, and that Canada would become complicit in,” he said.

Making progress, however, is likely to require more than hope. Canada needs to be prepared to abandon an extradition treaty if it can’t get agreement, Amnesty International’s Mr. Nee said.

Human Rights Watch China researcher Maya Wang called for Canada to make the release of jailed human-rights lawyers the prerequisite for beginning extradition talks.

“Canada should also push for the absolution of shuanggui” — the Communist Party disciplinary system — “because it has no legal basis at all, and is often used to coerce confessions out of individuals who are accused of corruption,” she said.

Making any gains, however, will require “teeth” on Canada’s part and an effort that involves not just backroom discussions, but also public statements from political leaders, she said.

“This shouldn’t be a case in which the Canadian government says it’s going to use this opportunity to engage the Chinese government, but in fact is mostly capitulating on these very key issues,” she said.

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