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Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland meets with The Globe and Mail’s editorial board in Toronto on Dec. 1, 2017.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland says Prime Minister Justin Trudeau takes "very, very personally to heart" the plight of Canadians imprisoned in China and she doesn't know why Beijing won't heed Ottawa's pleas to free them.

Mr. Trudeau leaves for China on Saturday on a trip expected to include the announcement that Canada will begin formal free-trade talks with the world's second-largest economy and a growing military power. Beijing has been pressing for the talks, which would make Canada the first Group of Seven country to agree to negotiate a bilateral deal with the country.

Ms. Freeland told The Globe and Mail's editorial board on Friday that the Prime Minister will raise the case of four Canadians who have been detained in China when he holds talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

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"Let me tell you, the Prime Minister takes the consular cases very, very personally to heart," Ms. Freeland said. "I personally mention them at every opportunity. They are very troubling to me. … It is dreadful for the Canadians jailed in China and it is dreadful for their families."

The four Canadians are Huseyin Celil, a Uyghur dissident, imprisoned since 2006; Falun Gong practitioner Qian Sun, in jail since February; and British Columbia wine merchants John Chang and Allison Lu. The Richmond couple have been detained since May, 2016, over a custom dispute involving shipments of ice wine that Beijing says were undervalued for duty purposes.

The couple's daughter, Amy Chang, wrote to Mr. Trudeau on Monday asking him to postpone formal free-trade talks with Beijing until he obtains her parents' release. Mr. Chang, a former avid participant in trade missions to China who has been celebrated in Canada for his entrepreneurial skill, is in ill health and has lost one-third of his weight while in prison. Ms. Lu was released from jail in March but has been barred from leaving China.

Ms. Freeland said the four Canadians are experiencing a "dreadful" situation in Chinese jails, but she could not explain why China's rulers turn a deaf ear to Canada's pleas to free them.

"I am not going to speak for anybody else's government," the Foreign Minister said.

Ms. Freeland acknowledged that China's one-party dictatorship and record of human-rights abuse trouble many Canadians, but she said Canada nevertheless needs to expand trade with the world's fastest-growing economy.

Even though recently concluded government consultations with 600 businesses, academics and civil-society groups found significant skepticism about a free-trade deal with Beijing, Ms. Freeland said Canada can't turn back the clock because China is already the country's second-biggest trading partner. "That is the economic reality for Canada and for Canadians," she said.

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While the Foreign Affairs Minister was careful not to upstage the expected announcement of formal trade talks in Beijing next week, Ms. Freeland said she was confident any such negotiations would not overshadow crucial talks on the North American free-trade agreement.

"Canada has the best trade negotiators in the world. It is something we are extremely good at," she said. "We are very capable of conducting a number of very important trade negotiations at the same time."

Canada is currently in exploratory trade talks with China and Ms. Freeland said if formal negotiations get the green light, those talks would be complicated and would take years, noting a European deal took seven years to conclude.

Former Conservative industry minister James Moore last month warned against Canada opening talks with China right now, predicting such discussions with Beijing would "run a very high risk" of damaging NAFTA negotiations. Mr. Moore, who is now an adviser to Ms. Freeland in the NAFTA talks, said he's warned her that protectionist forces could use the China talks to cast Canada as a conduit for Chinese goods entering the United States.

"I think if Canada were to signal that we were to go forward with a binding free-trade agreement with China, that would provide President [Donald] Trump with incredible rhetorical ammunition against Canada," Mr. Moore told reporters in late October. He said this could fuel a backlash "would be incredibly toxic to the Canada-U.S. relationship."

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