The children of a Canadian couple held by China have been told to get ready for their release, but are calling on Ottawa to abandon a quiet campaign of international diplomacy and lobby more loudly on their behalf.
"At this point, we're pretty much preparing for my parents to come back to Canada. We don't know exactly when, but the Canadian government has given us an indication that we should prepare for that," said Simeon Garratt on Wednesday.
His parents Kevin and Julia Garratt were detained in early August by Chinese authorities who said the Christian couple, who owned a coffee shop in a small city on the North Korean border, were suspected of stealing state military and defence-research secrets.
Their detention has been a major irritant to Canada-China ties, and their release would help to soothe relations ahead of a series of important provincial and federal trade delegations to the Asian nation. But it is by no means certain.
China has said nothing directly to confirm the couple will be let go, and indeed has in the past seldom done so in such cases.
The couple has since been held separately and under heavy guard in Dandong, where they had lived for decades, while China's State Secrets Bureau conducts an investigation. Their contact with the outside world has been heavily constrained, although they have been allowed consular visits every two weeks, more than China is obligated to provide.
In a note to family members from the latest visit last week, the Canadian embassy in Beijing reported that "both Kevin and Julia said that when released, they would return to Canada (to Toronto) and stay with Julia's sister in Milton. Our consul outlined that it was likely the Chinese would ask the family to buy tickets via the Embassy when the time came."
The note offered no definitive confirmation that the couple will be released. Chinese authorities have, in the past, been reluctant to go easy on Western citizens they accuse of stealing state secrets. Several people have in recent years been handed lengthy prison sentences.
But the Garratts have been told the signs are positive in conversations with officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development. In meetings in Ottawa and Beijing, Canadian officials have sought to apply pressure for the couple's release. They have threatened to have Prime Minister Stephen Harper snub an invitation to a November meeting in Beijing with Chinese leadership. In September, Ottawa also suddenly ratified the Foreign Investment Promotion and Protection Act, a move that pleased China.
In China, Peter Garratt, the couple's second son, has begun packing some of their belongings and preparing to permanently shutter the coffee shop they owned. "It's extremely sad," he said.
Packing belongings is an admission that the family is unlikely to ever return to their lives in China.
Chinese officials have been stingy with information, according to Canadian sources who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly on the case. The federal government has publicly said little about the couple, opting to engage quietly with China to avoid the potential nastiness of a public spat.
But there are signs that may change. The Garratt family has engaged in a letter-writing campaign, urging support from opposition parties and provincial premiers, many of whom will soon come to China on a trade delegation. The sons are also now calling on the Conservative leadership to be more outspoken.
"The Canadian government should take a very strong stance on the fact that these are clearly people that were doing good work in China, have been in China for over 30 years and are Canadian citizens that were running a business," Simeon Garratt said. "This is just a bad precedent for people that want to do business in China."
The Globe and Mail has learned that an option under consideration in Ottawa is a parliamentary motion calling on China to release the Garratts, a move that would amount to a high-profile push from parliamentarians at odds with the largely behind-the-scenes effort that has taken place thus far. One source, who is not authorized to comment publicly about the case and spoke on condition of anonymity, said Foreign Affairs is considering such a motion. It's unclear, however, under what conditions or even if such a motion would ever be introduced. Yet its consideration is a sign that the Canadian government is at least weighing a louder response to the Garratts' detention.
Asked about the motion and whether there's optimism the Garratts will soon be released, Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued only a brief written statement. "We don't comment on consular cases. That said, this case has been, and continues to be, raised at senior levels. Beyond that I have nothing to add to your story," he wrote.
Any motion would likely have consequences for Canada-China relations, particularly in co-ordination with a snubbed invitation to a high-profile leaders' meeting.
"It would be a disaster," said Paul Evans, a University of British Columbia international relations professor, who called the idea "a horrifying conception. It would be a disaster."
He added: "If we looked at a Richter scale of impact on bilateral relations, a parliamentary motion would hit about a five out of 10. Publicly embarrassing the Chinese by not accepting the invitation on the grounds that are being explicitly floated" – the Garratts' case, and allegations of China hacking into Canadian government computers – "that's going to be an 8.5."
He likened it to "playing chicken with a bulldozer."
Asked about the motion and whether there's optimism the Garratts will soon be released, Jason MacDonald, a spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, issued only a brief written statement. "We don't comment on consular cases. That said, this case has been, and continues to be, raised at senior levels. Beyond that I have nothing to add to your story," he said.