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canada-china relations

From left, Amy Chang, her father John Chang and mother Allison Lu.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is being urged to postpone free-trade talks with China until the authoritarian regime frees two Canadians who have been detained for more than 20 months over a customs duty dispute.

Amy Chang, whose father and mother have been trapped in China since March, 2016, wrote to Mr. Trudeau on Monday, asking him to "directly help free my parents" when he meets President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Li Keqiang next week.

Mr. Trudeau leaves for Beijing on Saturday to meet China's top leaders, where they are expected to formally announce bilateral free-trade talks – negotiations that will likely take years.

Ms. Chang says the Chinese government has criminalized what should merely be a commercial dispute and that her parents' treatment should serve as a warning to people looking to do business in China.

The case has raised questions about the Liberal government's pursuit of a special relationship with China – a country that doesn't have an independent justice system and where graft and corruption are common.

John Chang, who emigrated from Taiwan in 2000, was once celebrated in Canada for his entrepreneurial skills and regularly participated in trade missions to China with Canadian government officials. He was named an RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant award winner in 2015 for building a wine business from Richmond, B.C., with principal exports to the Asian market.

"I am asking you to delay launching formal free-trade negotiations with China until my parents are back home safely in Canada," Ms. Chang wrote in the letter to Mr. Trudeau that was provided to The Globe and Mail.

"If your government cannot protect and defend honest Canadian business people in China today, how will you be able to protect and defend honest Canadians doing business in China after we have a free-trade agreement?"

Her parents have always been strong proponents of trade with China, she told Mr. Trudeau, and would normally be joining the Prime Minister on such a visit.

"But my father cannot join you on your trade mission because he is sitting in a Chinese detention centre, denied visits from his wife and family and becoming sicker by the day."

Mr. Chang and Allison Lu were arrested on allegations of failing to pay sufficient duties on ice wine shipments to China – charges denied by the couple.

Since their arrest, Mr. Chang has been detained in a Shanghai prison while his wife has been barred from leaving China.

Ms. Chang told the Prime Minister that her father, who owns Lulu Island Winery, has lost one third of his body weight since his imprisonment and she fears for his life. Her father is battling hepatitis C and two cancerous liver tumours.

"Prior to his illegal detention, my father has had success managing his illness through careful attention to his diet. This is no longer possible. I fear that my father is now at serious risk of dying in his prison cell."

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland assured Ms. Chang last June that Ottawa was working hard to persuade Beijing to allow her parents to return home. Since then, Ms. Chang said she has heard little from the government about what it is doing to free her parents.

"The occasional visits from Canadian consular officials based in China has been of little comfort and, apparently, of little help," Ms. Chang wrote. "After 20 months, I worry that your government is either unable or unwilling to do what is necessary for the Chinese government to let my parents come home to Canada."

Ms. Freeland's office, asked for comment, said the government remains "deeply concerned by the case" and is following it closely. "Minister Freeland has raised the case with Chinese authorities at the highest levels," spokesman Adam Austen said in an e-mailed statement. "Most recently, she raised it directly with her Chinese counterpart during the APEC summit. She also discussed the case while in Beijing this past August."

Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said Mr. Trudeau must demand the release of the couple and push China's leaders to respect the rule of law and not arbitrarily throw people into prison.

"If Canada and others don't push China to do a better job of respecting the rule of law, this is the reality of doing business there. How do you expect contracts to be enforced? How do you expect basic business disputes that come up all the time to be resolved?" she said.

Mr. Chang and Ms. Lu faced a criminal trial in Shanghai last May, accused of smuggling wine into China at cut-rate prices. No verdict has yet been rendered, but China's legal system has a conviction rate of 99.6 per cent.

China says the couple owe Beijing nearly $20-million and seized 267,000 bottles of their wine; the maximum punishment for smuggling is life in prison and a fine up to five times the amount owed.

At the trial, Chinese authorities enlisted the testimony of a former employee of Lulu Island Winery, who told the court he warned his bosses years ago that they needed to raise the price they were declaring to Chinese customs.

Chinese authorities alleged that while Lulu Island sold its wine for $69 to $95 in Canada, it declared its value to Chinese customs for much less, in some cases well below $10. The winery says the Canadian prices are in-store retail prices while the import value declared in China was in line with how other foreign importers were pricing their wine for customs.

Lulu Island Winery said the employee had been fired for stealing wine and Mr. Chang said he had placed his trust in Chinese expertise to navigate a customs system he did not know well.

Mr. Chang and Ms. Lu live in Richmond, and over the years Mr. Chang had built a name for himself and his winery business in Canada. He regularly accompanied Canadian government officials on trade missions to China, and during the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the premises of Lulu Island Winery was designated as "China House," the place where Chinese athletes, coaches and officials could unwind after competition.