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One of the biggest mysteries of the Celil case is the question of why China refuses to recognize his Canadian citizenship.

The answer may have worrisome implications for an estimated 300,000 Chinese Canadians who often travel to China and could be vulnerable to arrest there.

China has refused to give any public explanation of why it considers Huseyin Celil to be a Chinese citizen. He became a Canadian citizen in 2005, and was travelling on a Canadian passport when he was arrested in Uzbekistan last year.

Unlike some Canadians, Mr. Celil is not a dual citizen. Like every other Chinese Canadian, he automatically lost his Chinese citizenship as soon as he became a Canadian. China's nationalities law, introduced in 1980, clearly states that the Chinese lose their citizenship as soon as they become citizens of another country.

China has never officially explained why it is ignoring its own law. Privately, its officials have sometimes cited another clause in the law that requires Chinese citizens to get the approval of the national public-security organs if they want to make a formal renunciation of their citizenship.

But several international legal experts have told The Globe and Mail that the clause has no effect on Article 9 of the law, which flatly states in unconditional terms that Chinese citizenship is automatically lost from the moment when foreign citizenship is obtained.

China also complains that Mr. Celil fled China without permission, and privately they imply that this prevents Beijing from recognizing his Canadian citizenship. But refugees, by definition, are often obliged to flee their homelands without official permission. Mr. Celil was declared a refugee by the United Nations refugee agency in 2001.

The broader question is whether China accepts the international refugee system. Thousands of North Koreans, for example, have fled across the border to China and are generally recognized as refugees by the UN refugee agency. Yet China always sends them back to North Korea if they are caught in China, even though they face harsh punishment or, in some cases, death in their native country.

One legal expert, speaking on condition of anonymity, said China may be trying to send a strong message to refugees and exiles in Canada who criticize China. The message, he said, is that they could be arrested and sent to a Chinese prison if they travel to any country that is willing to extradite them to China.

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