The minority Conservative government is using the Huseyin Celil case to open a new political attack on the Liberals, describing the Official Opposition as hypocritical and soft on international human-rights issues.
The Liberals are crying foul, saying the Conservatives are mismanaging Canada's diplomatic relations with China so badly that it will be difficult for Ottawa to negotiate a release of Mr. Celil, a Canadian held in China on terrorism charges.
The Conservatives are not worried that a hard line with the Chinese will damage trade relations, Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay said yesterday.
"China needs Canada when it comes to our natural resources. When it comes to our trade, we have a huge surplus with China, and we're not going to be intimidated or threatened by China because of the fact that we take human rights seriously," Mr. MacKay told CTV's Question Period.
He then turned on the Liberals, saying that "contrary to the hypocrisy of the Liberals," the government is trying to maintain cordial business relations with China and stand up for human rights.
Mr. MacKay said Prime Minister Stephen Harper and other Conservative ministers continue to raise the Celil case with Chinese counterparts.
"And unlike Mr. Arar, where the previous government apparently did not have that level of contact and follow-up, we're very much on this case," Mr. MacKay said, referring to Maher Arar, the Canadian who was imprisoned and tortured in Syria in 2002.
Liberals note that it was former Liberal prime minister Jean Chrétien who wrote to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to secure Mr. Arar's release.
Liberal MP Dan McTeague said Mr. Chrétien was working to secure Mr. Arar's release even as Stockwell Day and other Conservatives were suggesting publicly that the software engineer was a serious terrorist suspect.
Mr. McTeague, who was the previous government's point man on the consular cases of Canadians caught in legal jams abroad, said the Conservatives are late converts to the cause and are being hypocritical.
Mr. Harper may have discussed the Celil case briefly with Chinese President Hu Jintao during a summit meeting last year in Vietnam, he said, but the Prime Minister has refused to phone the Chinese leader since Mr. Celil's trial opened more than a week ago.
"Did he lose Hu's phone number?" the Liberal MP asked.
More likely, Mr. McTeague continued, is that Mr. Harper has such visceral ideological differences with the Chinese government "he cannot bring himself to pick up the phone."
Finance Minister Jim Flaherty disclosed that he has invited his Chinese counterpart to come to Canada in the fall.
The two met on the sidelines of a G8 finance ministers meeting on the weekend in Germany.
Mr. Flaherty said he did not raise the Celil case because he had talked about it with Chinese officials during previous meetings in China.
He said he wants to sell the Chinese on the utility of working with Canada's sophisticated financial-services sector. "Quite frankly, China needs Canadian expertise in the financial-services sector, because they have a huge savings rate, in excess of 40 per cent, and they need the kind of products and expertise that Canada can offer."
Mr. Celil is a former imam at a mosque in Hamilton. He was travelling on his Canadian passport to Uzbekistan, where he was arrested on a Chinese charge and deported to China. He has been held at an unknown location for about eight months.
Chinese authorities refuse to recognize that Mr. Celil is a Canadian citizen. He was born and raised in China.